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'The Only Certainty Now is We Need to be Flexible': Microsoft Executive Discusses New Workplace Reality

Rani Borkar is Corporate Vice President of Azure Hardware Systems and Infrastructure at Microsoft. Ms. Borkar previously held executive roles at IBM and Intel. She has two grown-up sons.


Read S&P Global and AARP's research, "Something's Gotta Give".

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

S&P Global: The professional and the personal are becoming increasingly intermixed during the pandemic. So often we see the responsibility for family, whether that is caring for children or caring for older relatives, falls to women. What has your experience been during your career, and now during the pandemic?

Rani Borkar: First of all, let's just all acknowledge—this current time with the pandemic is a stressful time, of course, for everybody. So I think we will be pretending if we say things are all normal. They are not.

For me, personally, whether it's now or during my career, it's always a balance between your work, your family, and for me, also the community I live in—my friends, my family, my coworkers, my colleagues.

My children are older now, they are in their 20s. My husband and I are both still working from home. And we make the necessary adjustments that everybody else is doing right now with social distancing, family, quarantine, bubble, etc. For me, personally, one of the most difficult things during this time has been not seeing my children as frequently as I would like to. That's on the personal side.

From the work side, to me, the community, whether it's friends, family, coworkers, is very, very important. And there are small things I personally do. For example, I send text messages every day, at least to a few people and say, ‘Hey, just checking in, how are you doing, hope you're staying safe and healthy.’ And just that one caring sentence from somebody, it goes a long way.

This work from home situation—it is not one size that still fits all. Each one of us has a different challenge. And I, first of all, make sure that I'm taking care of myself. So I take a step back, take personal time to regroup. My husband and I go for walks. I think about my community at Microsoft and I check in on people's well-being. So what I'm trying to say is, especially in times like this, it's very important to really stay connected with people.

And then finally, I understand what it is like for young families. It's really a balance. If I worked hard and if when my kids were growing up it was hard, I can only imagine how tough it is for folks with younger children now. 

[Microsoft] CEO Satya [Nadella] recently said: Instead of becoming very dogmatic about some new paradigm, maybe the dogmatic thing here is flexibility. And this is something I'm taking to heart and communicating across all my organizations. I don't use the word ‘teams’ anymore—I say my community. And the only certainty now is we need to be flexible.


Flexibility is something that I hear about increasingly in these conversations that I'm having. Can you tell me more about what you're doing to encourage that flexibility or what Microsoft as a broader organization is doing to make flexibility part of the culture?

Yes. So first of all, as I said, I'd like to think about things in two parts, right? One is how we are doing as a corporation. And it warms my heart every day. I see how each and every leader is really getting personally involved and saying: ‘What can I do better?’ So adjustments like no meetings Friday, let's say, or a sectioning of a part of a day in a week where we say, you know what, we are not going to have any meetings. People have to maybe feed lunch to their kid or maybe help them with some online stuff. And folks shouldn't think that they are missing out. So giving a lot of flexibility in terms of upfront timing and listening to their concerns.

[Microsoft recently began offering] PSCCL, which stands for the pandemic school closure and childcare leave benefit. It's a pandemic leave for parents who need additional time for care for their children. So we are doing that. That is one of the benefits that came out of the pandemic, and it's a way that Microsoft is helping our employees and considering their needs during such an unprecedented time.


You said you have kids who are in their 20s now. What was your work-life balance like when you first had children?

I come from humble beginnings. Both mom and dad had to work to support the family. And in fact, I'm the first to graduate in the family. And my memory goes as far back as my growing up school days and mom and dad were a team, and I was very lucky to have a supportive network where not only both of them played an active role in raising me and taking care of what our family needed, but [were also] really good role models. 

In those days, women were at home and men were working. It was a privilege to grow up in a family where both of them worked, where both supported each other. And in my circle of family friends, I saw a lot of mom and dad friends that had the same dynamic of teamwork going on between parents and working, caring for children, family and the home. Now I will totally acknowledge that this is not every situation. Not every situation is like mine.

My husband and I have always approached this as a team. As the kids were growing up, my husband or I would drop them to school and then the nanny would go pick them up. And at one point, both the boys said, ‘Hey, how come everybody else's parents drop them and pick them up and you guys don't pick us up from school?’ My husband and I sat down and talked and we decided as a team we can do this.

And so I held the fort in the morning. I dropped the kids in the morning. And by the time we woke up, he would have already left for work. And by school pick-up time, he will go pick up the kids. So I had flexibility in the evening. We are both engineers by profession, my husband and I. So we would even plan our meals and as a team. The kids would have a say in what's dinner like for the next week. And the whole family would be involved. We would go grocery shopping together. We would cook together, my husband and I, on Sunday, and we would be ready for the week. And so that's how my personal situation was.

Like I told you, I don't think it is across the board like that. But one thing I will absolutely tell you, I'm seeing more and more people where there is teamwork going on, and women are not bearing all the burden of home care and then husbands on the other side just from the work front. So there is a lot of balance that I see, at least in the people I work with and in my community.

 [Rani Borkar, Microsoft Corporate Vice President of Azure Hardware Systems and Infrastructure. Source: Rani Borkar]

Generally we see parental leave policies evolving in that way, too, where it's increasingly common to have parental leave, not just maternity leave, to allow mothers and fathers time off to care for newborns, for example. Is that something that you've seen in your career in the tech sector?

I'm very, very encouraged to see what is happening in the industry. I’ve only worked in the tech industry, and it's great to see that the industry has been at the forefront of benefits. To attract the best talent, you need to offer competitive benefits. And I do believe policies are changing with to not only follow the talent, but to meet the needs of the employees.


Not everyone paints such an optimistic picture of the progress for women. One of the women I interviewed for this project said COVID is going to be a ‘disaster’ for women in terms of their advancement in the workplace and their participation in the workforce more broadly as women drop out of the workforce or take part-time jobs in order to facilitate or balance their home responsibilities. How would you respond to that slightly more pessimistic view?

It is important that women build their networks and communities to support each other and empathize with each other. And this is why I keep using the word community. Look at any successful leader in the industry and I can promise you they did not do it on their own. They had the support of their community, whether it was family, friends, whatever help they got. And so to me, it starts with the community. To me, it starts with building the networks. And to me it always starts with making sure that I'm talking about my challenges to people.

Way back in my younger days, the kids were growing up, my husband used to leave in the morning, so I was holding the fort in the morning. And then afternoon was his fort to hold. Well, during that time, for the first time, I became a project manager of a microprocessor. That was a huge deal. And guess what? There were meetings that were happening at 7 in the morning, and I had to present once a week.

I could have basically said, ‘Well, I cannot do that,’ or I could speak up. And I gently went and told the leader of the group: ‘I really would like to present. But I drop my kids at 8 in the morning. Would it be possible for me to be the first presenter every single meeting?’ Because the presentation was only 15 minutes to 20 minutes. And then my husband and I planned for that day of the week even more exquisitely.

Men, women—we all can get the support, help, encouragement, mentorship, no matter what unique challenges we face. And sometimes, it's as simple as you just need someone to understand and care. And so if my colleagues need support and help from my perspective and time I’ll do what I can. At the end, it's all about finding solutions, being flexible. And through my three decades of journey in high tech, I have found that there is always a solution. I don't expect my leadership or my manager to be omnipresent or know what challenges are going on in my life until I talk about it. And not just talk as in complain, but I talk about it, and I come up with a solution to see if it can be workable both ways. And so the message I would send to everybody is: Go talk about it, get the support of your community, come up with solutions, and you will be amazed and surprised [at] the support you get.


I think that's a great message because it gives permission to women and men to explain what their situation is, to not try and pretend like there aren't kids in the background of your call or other family responsibilities. Because the reality is, so many of us do have those, and they're increasingly visible now in the pandemic.

There is no one size that fits all in terms of solutions. It's important to understand that everybody is facing their own challenge.

My message to everybody will be, yes, it's a very, very tough time we are all going through. No doubt or debate about it. But you know what, we need to continue to look for that ray of hope, continue to reach out to people, whether it's supporting us or supporting them. And together, we will get through this.

Don't try to do it alone. Everybody needs support, help and community. So go find that.