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Job sharing: smashing glass ceilings and breaking down stereotypes

Usually, when you enter into a jobshare, you’re mostly thinking about the “life” part of work/life balance. You’re thinking: “I need some weekdays at home with the kids” or “I’m sick of working part time but actually spending my non-working days answering calls” or “I want to spend some time volunteering or studying or pursuing a hobby that can’t be done at weekends”.

And these are all valid reasons to jobshare.

What you don’t think of so much, until you’re a few months into a successful jobshare, are the huge work benefits, both for you and for your employer. Two brains on every problem (and those brains don’t switch off on their non-working days, they just go into a less frenetic mode). An in-built challenge function that improves the quality of every piece of work, before anyone else has even seen it. An enormous well of resilience that comes from the psychological and emotional support of a partnership, through good times and bad. The flexibility to still step up in a crisis despite the fact that half of the partnership is away on holiday, or ill, or attending a funeral. Double the life experience, double the workplace experience, double the likelihood that one of you has encountered a particular issue before.

job share.jpgAs a business case, it’s a compelling proposition. And as a way of working, it has truly been life-changing for us. We’ve jobshared for 9 years, and we’ve always been pretty evangelical about its benefits, doing lots of coaching and mentoring to people in the Civil Service, in the FS sector and elsewhere to promote it. But it wasn’t until the early weeks of the Covid crisis in March 2020 - thrown into a new role where we were working 16 hour days, 7 days a week, whilst home-schooling, between us, 7 children, looking after a corona-sick husband (one of us) and grieving a bereavement (the other one) that the penny truly dropped. If either of us had been trying to shoulder this alone, we’d have likely gone under. Together, we got through it, flexibly swapping around responsibilities as necessary, and providing each other with time in the week to devote to our out of work responsibilities and catch up on sleep. Not to mention keeping each other going with our habitual black humour and rude jokes.

Of course, spring 2020 wasn’t normal times - but the same principles apply at all times, just in a less intense way.

It’s worth saying at this point that jobsharing isn’t for everyone, and as with everything in life there are downsides. If your partner has made a decision you’d do differently, you can’t question or undo it. If they’ve deviated from the party line, you have to follow. (Many of the principles of shared parenting apply.) If you’re someone who likes to be in control at all times, it’s not for you. You can’t come in to work on the back foot, nor can you spend your working day playing catchup, so you have to devote some of your own time to catching up and handing over: for us, writing off Sunday and Tuesday evenings are worth it in order to gain 2 work-free days each per week, but it wouldn’t suit everyone. And of course, once you’ve agreed your working days there’s no potential to shift them unless you both agree it - your personal and professional lives are thus pretty entwined, and again that’s not for everyone.

The keys to a successful partnership, as with so much in life, are mutual respect and open communication. Like a good marriage, there needs to be a degree of chemistry - you don’t have to be best friends but you do have to like each other and respect one another’s experience and judgement, and want to support your partner to do things brilliantly. If one of you is more confident or capable, the team will gravitate towards them, and that’s not going to work. You need have a shared leadership style that means your teams don’t feel they’re being led by a lion in the first half of the week and a mouse in the second half. You need to be scrupulous about writing everything down to hand over, or you’re allowing your partner to walk into a potential bear trap of ignorance. And you need to be fully comfortable that one of you might prepare for a presentation or meeting that the other one gives and gets the credit for. Or, worst case scenario, that one of you messes up and the other takes the flack. It can happen.

We’ve jobshared now at 3 different government departments, and are proud to have been the most senior jobshare that the Treasury has had. We were also proud that, as we left our insurance sector-facing role, several of our industry contacts (we’ll spare their blushes but they were senior, aged over 50 and not female) admitted that when we first arrived back in 2016, they’d neither heard of jobsharing before nor did they think for a moment that it could work. To their credit they admitted that they had been wrong. All credit now to the insurance sector for grabbing this opportunity not only to support flexible working at all levels, and thus retain valuable staff who might otherwise leave the workplace, but also to reap the huge business benefits to be gained by supporting jobsharing as a way of working.

Becky Morrison & Hannah Malik are Director for Civil Society and Youth at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. They were previously Covid-19 Corporate Director and Deputy Director, Insurance, at HM Treasury.

Last updated 27/07/2021