“Pandemic has taken women’s fight for equal representation back by nearly 50 years”

We, at Adgully, have always saluted and honoured women managers and leaders across diverse fields. Last year, we launched our unique and distinct program, called WOMEN DISRUPTORS, which drew a lot of attention and was highly appreciated by the industry. W-Suite is a special initiative from Adgully that has been turning the spotlight on some of the most remarkable women achievers in M&E, Advertising & Marketing, PR & Communication industry. In the refurbished series, we will find out how women leaders have been managing their teams and work as well as how they have been navigating through the toughest and most challenging times brought about by the global pandemic.

In conversation with Adgully, Chandana Agarwal, President, 82.5 Communications, North, The Ogilvy Group, recounts her experience of leading her team at 82.5 during the COVID-19 crisis, offering a supportive environment, maintaining work-life balance and also how the pandemic has been the coming of age of the millennials. 

How do you think the role and scope of women leaders has widened in the post-pandemic world?

At a personal level, I know women leaders who have found it easy to participate in and influence areas that may not have come easy earlier because of various factors. The more equal access world of the pandemic opened some doors. But the truth is that the pandemic has seen more women and their careers impacted negatively across the board. With day-care centres and schools shut, with people thinking twice about going to hospitals, the role of the primary caregiver to the elderly and looking after the children fell on the women disproportionately. If reports are to be believed, the pandemic has taken women’s fight for equal representation back by nearly 50 years. I think in the post pandemic world all leaders (irrespective of the gender) should make a concerted effort towards integrating women in the workforce. 

The rapid transition to digital, an uncertain economic landscape, charting unknown waters, working from home with no modes of the usual contacts. How have you been navigating during the COVID-19 times? What were the challenges that you faced and how did you tackle them?

I found myself swinging between two mind-states.The first one was – so much to do that there was no time to feel anything. It’s like soldiering on. I had to deal with the office and changes there, the morale of the team, the business pressures, the house and the kathak academy that I run. The last one took a very long time to transition to online, but I was determined that I will not let anything be compromised and it meant that I had to take the classes till my teachers were equipped to do so.

The other mode of functioning was the constant sense of gratitude I felt for what I had. I think when the times are tough, it helps to pull back and have a perspective. I found many reasons to be grateful. Every time I felt my life was tough, as if by divine intervention, I would get a call from someone who had it tougher.

I honestly think that the pandemic was an equaliser. I think all of us were in the same boat. There was a sense of being in it together. Ogilvy as a Group and 82.5 within it have been very supportive and there were many measures taken to make sure people got to ‘socialise’ and de-stress through digital means. 

How challenging has it been for you to maintain a balance between managing the team & office work on the one hand and family responsibilities on the other as boundaries blurred while working from home? What is your mantra to maintain that balance?

There was a time when everything was getting mixed up and it could have been overwhelming, but I like to compartmentalise things and that truly helped. Early on, I created an ‘office’ space in one of my rooms so I could experience a feeling of ‘coming home’ everyday. I make it a point not to carry my laptop everywhere. I have different browsers for work and recreation. I think small things like this, and discipline just helped me deal with things, apart from a sense of belonging because of support from friends and family.

In addition, the pandemic got us all to interact with each other in our personal space, be it colleagues, bosses, clients or friends. While the screen can be cold and impersonal, it is also very intimate. It is one on one. We all were guests in each others’ houses virtually, it created a certain bond of humanness which is beyond the garb of official connect. Once that happens, people become sensitive in all relationships and interpersonal equations. The pandemic gave us two things – one we talk about, which is comfort with technology; the second and the more important thing is ‘authenticity’. I think these are two changes that will positively impact the way we work and the way we interact. 

Multiple studies have shown how women leaders performed better during the COVID-19 crisis. According to you, what makes women the best in crisis management?

I think women are collaborative problem solvers genetically, and tend to be more adaptable behaviorally – both critical aspects of managing and succeeding in crisis situations. Most women are managing multiple aspects at a time – work and home – children and employees, home budgets and work budgets – and typically have more roles to manage than men, and that makes them adept at multitasking and compartmentalising things. I personally don’t procrastinate. I can’t talk for all women, but fundamentally I think I am just a wee bit more insecure/ unsure than others and therefore, like to finish things before time. 

What are the five most effective lessons that you have learned as a woman leader?

  • Human beings are adaptable, we can get used to anything, we did things we never thought we could and we survived. We didn’t think we could operate from home for nearly a year and yet we did. Therefore, I would like to draw strength from this in the future and tell myself that I am stronger than the environment
  • Life is precious and uncertain, we heard of so many people who lost their lives – untimely and suddenly. It brings home the fact that life is very precious and we need to stay in the moment. I have been a hoarder of all good things, telling myself this is not the ‘right’ time. I have changed that, I believe that this is the moment and we must live it to the hilt. It has also made me grateful for what I have and made me value things, people, relationships and opportunities

  • I must confess that my view on the millennials went through a complete change. I discovered that they can be extremely accountable, disciplined and motivated when you rely on them. If I was to just look at punctuality, every young person in our office has been on time every single day in the last year. This was not something I had expected as it never happened when we were going to the physical office. I can only attribute it to external control (marking attendance) versus accountability from within. They have all been very disciplined, not just about themselves but have taken responsibility of the health of their parents, going to great lengths to make sure that everyone is safe. I think the pandemic has been the coming of age of millennials
  • I realised how the office is so much more than merely a place for work, especially for women. It allows them to be their ‘other’ self. I also figured that culture is what comes to the fore in the face of a crises, be it in people or in organisations and I am grateful for being where I am
  • Human connect is critical – this period of isolation has reinforced lessons on how important professional relationships and connects are for long term satisfaction and joy at work, and it is important to find ways of ensuring that those connects are nurtured through tough times

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