How TCS Bridged the Gulf With an All-Women BPO
Tackling challenges like restrictive laws and perceptions was no mean feat
Mumbai: On Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will wrap up his latest international tour of Belgium, United States and Saudi Arabia by visiting a BPO outfit run by Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), India’s largest IT services company. It’s not your run-of-themill BPO unit. For one, the centre is based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia — a city not exactly known for its IT services industry. What makes things even more interesting is that each one of the 1,000-odd employees at the centre are women — in a country where women aren’t allowed to drive.
“This centre is proof of our intent and ability to partner in the kingdom’s transformation journey by establishing a new industry in the country and by tapping into the talent pool of qualified Saudi women,” TCS CEO N Chandrasekaran told ET.
The centre which was inaugurated as a joint venture between TCS and GE in 2014 – and with GE and Saudi Aramco as anchor clients – was probably among the first BPOs to set up shop in Saudi Arabia. It was the first BPO in the region to employ only women.
Over the last five years, female participation in Saudi’s workforce has increased, as the ruling monarchy has actively eased restrictions. A recent Bloomberg report cited that the number of female workers has surged by 48% since 2010. The kingdom, in recent years, has allowed women to vote for local elections, work in retail and hospitality sectors. The first female Saudi lawyer got her licence in 2013.
Having said that, growth for TCS hasn’t been without challenges. Finding a qualified workforce of women was not one of them. “65% of all graduates in Saudi are women,” says Neeraj Srivastava, regional director, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, TCS. One third of all Saudi graduates studying abroad are women. However, women constitute only 16% of the kingdom’s workforce, largely because of the restrictive laws there.
Saudi law, for example, forbids women from travelling, conducting official business or even undergoing a surgery without the consent of their male guardians – husbands, brothers or fathers. Often, that consent is hard to come by for TCS. “People simply did not know what a BPO was and there were very unfavorable associations with call centres,” recalls Dinanath Kholkar, global head of BPS at Tata Consultancy Services.
To overcome these perceptions, TCS invited not just potential hires for interviews but also their male guardians. “Initially, to get families on board, we invited fathers, brothers and husbands and other family members to accompany the women for interviews. We would follow that up with a quick tour of the campus to put them at ease and demonstrate our commitment to keep the centre an allwomen workplace,” says Srivastava.
Ensuring that an all-women workplace stayed that way was another matter. “We had to think of the minutest of details like what happens if a faucet bursts or we need an electrician or for that matter a global executive of TCS visits the campus,” says a TCS executive, who was involved in brainstorming the operational issues for the campus. Today, even the janitors and support staff at the campus are women. “In cases where services of a man are required, announcements are made, so that women employees can put on their abayas and niqabs – or leave the room,” adds the executive.
Visiting executives – be it men or women – from TCS or GE, are also trained extensively on a “list of dos and don’ts.” Visiting women executives, for instance, are told not to sit in front of a car, alongside the driver.
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges TCS faced was that most of the workforce was inexperienced. Some of them had never worked in an office before. That led to some hiccups, initially. During the festive season of Ramadan, in the first year of operations, a majority of employees went on leave en masse without informing the company, recalls an executive. The company has since put a back-up plan in place. “We had to inculcate a culture of responsibility – that office wasn’t about coming in at 9 am and leaving at 5 pm,” says Srivastava. In all, TCS has conducted over 6,10,000 cumulative hours of intensive training sessions for its employees in Saudi Arabia.
In June 2015, TCS hired Amal Fatani – a distinguished academic and a promoter of women empowerment in the kingdom – as its centre head. Fatani says she is encouraged by the progress achieved in the centre – “the first all-women, private sector” outfit – and is confident that the centre will grow to 3,000 employees in a couple of years.
TCS says that the Riyadh centre is now “an integral part” of its global delivery network and is no longer just a BPO delivery centre.