Despite the number of flexible working arrangements growing among men and women, in the main job share remains a female preserve. Heather Greig-Smith asks if this will change and considers the benefits for employers.
“I have never come across men requesting job share,” says Tina Wisener, partner at law firm Doyle Clayton, who advises employers on flexible working requests and job share proposals.
“It is in my experience always women. It is usually when they are coming back from maternity leave and ask to reduce their hours. The employer will say it’s a full-time role and then job share will be suggested,” she says.
“It should be able to work everywhere but I have mainly seen it in administrative roles, which is a shame because they tend to be the more junior roles.”
However, Wisener is hopeful that cultural change may reduce female domination of job sharing. “I have seen a large increase over the last year in flexible working applications from men. At some point soon, job share might not be a women’s issue,” she says.
The signs are there. Lloyds Banking Group’s top lawyers have recently been in the news as they are job sharing. Group general counsel Andrew Whittaker joined the group in May from the Financial Services Association. He is responsible for the strategy and direction of the bank’s 370-strong legal team, which is based in the UK and abroad. He is sharing his role with full-time deputy Kate Cheetham and works 0.6 of a full-time contract, with hours rising or falling depending on workload.
Whittaker says the job share works as their skills complement each other. “With Kate’s experience in commercial and her extensive knowledge of the group, my regulatory background and external perspective having joined from another organisation, it is proving to be a very complementary partnership.”
Cheetham adds: “Although we have only started working together recently, we think it is already proving to be the right approach. The group as a whole is very supportive of flexible working – it doesn’t just make life easier for our colleagues, it is proving to be good for the business too.”
The Capability Jane Job Share Project reported last year on the use of job share in organisations. It confirmed that job sharing is largely a female issue: 87% of its respondents were women. However, it also confirmed that job share can and does work in senior roles, not just administration. Over 80% of the people surveyed held positions of responsibility and 91% of job shares said it was possible to manage people.
John Palmer, senior guidance manager for ACAS, says job sharing is ingrained in many organisations. “It’s happening more out there than it might at first seem,” he says.
“If a job requires initiative and skills, two heads can be better than one. Job sharing can manage peak periods of demand more effectively: if you are in the financial sector and coming to year end there is always more chance that at least one of the sharers may be prepared to work a bit extra. Also, the impact of leave, particularly where there is unexpected leave, will be a lot more easily managed. Job sharing is almost like having a mini team.”
Palmer adds that with more people wanting to work flexibly to balance their working and home lives, job sharing has a lot of appeal.
Yet while it can work well and provide significant benefits, it would be a stretch to say job sharing will be the most popular way of securing flexibility in the future.
Alison Hughes is head of HR policy at Centrica. She says although job sharing is one of the suite of options offered to people seeking flexibility in their working lives, it is not necessarily a top choice, especially with high levels of flexibility on offer.
She says: “We have large numbers of both men and women working flexibly, to accommodate school hours, for example. People ask for the hours that suit their requirements. We could manage that through job share but we have a number of flexible working practices available. In addition we also support people with caring responsibilities to work flexibly to juggle the balance between work and home life.”
Alexander Ehmann is head of employment policy at the Institute of Directors. He says: “My instinct is that job share hasn’t taken off. It hasn’t been transformative. I know people working flexibly but I’m not aware of people job sharing.”
He says what would drive greater use of job sharing is people applying – finding a partner to work with and putting themselves forward for roles. “It’s a bit like forming a business relationship with a partner,” he says. “The challenge is typically going to be a management one. The very best job shares ameliorate this by working very hard on delivering the continuity that is essential. Job shares have to be quite self-regulating and self-managing. If continuity issues come up then by definition it’s not working particularly well.”
His view is that job sharing works best where people have complementary skill sets and an employer can benefit from different skills in the same role, rather than having two people with the same skills.
Wisener points out that job sharing secures loyalty and commitment from staff members. “When employers really think about it, one of the benefits is you tend to get employees who are really committed to their jobs and very focused on their jobs, not on taking breaks and chatting to colleagues,” she says.
The Job Share Project survey backs this up – it found that job shares put in extra unpaid work and are available to each other on non-work days to make their partnerships work.
Fear of sharing
Despite this, employer misconceptions about job sharing are rife, with many believing a job share will be more work for them.
“There is often a misconception of what job sharing is all about. If it has never happened before and people have never shared before, issues can arise,” says Palmer. “It’s unfamiliar and can be daunting, particularly in smaller companies. You can understand why people are apprehensive. In practice, if anything job sharing will reinforce continuity, not take it away.”
However, he adds that having a proper handover in place is important. This may mean extra costs for an employer as they will have overlap. It’s also important to see both job share partners as equals and avoid slipping into ‘junior’ and ‘senior’ roles.
“You have to have a lot more people skills to job share, particularly if you’re in a line management role. You have to be a co-operative person and a bit more organised,” says Palmer.
“When it works well job sharers see themselves as a single unit working together to achieve a single goal. They make sure their staff don’t see one as more likely to say yes than the other. If you’re going to countermand each other you’re going to have issues.”
Worst case scenario
Things can go wrong in job share, with Wisener recalling one situation where it resulted in one job share partner bringing a grievance against the other – a flexible employer’s nightmare. “It works really well if you have two people who want to make it work and they collaborate. It doesn’t work where one person in the job share saves all the rubbish jobs and hands them over,” she says.
A spokesman for Lloyds Banking Group agrees that sharers working seamlessly is important. “The most important feature of a successful job-share arrangement is the compatibility of the job sharers. It’s important that there’s a good match in personality, working styles and skills. How the team communicates is also an important consideration, and careful thought must be given to managing customer relationships and working with other colleagues.”
Job share does also mean additional costs such as doubling up on recruitment and training. While this may be easy for a large organisation to swallow, it will be a consideration for small businesses. “It’s not just a matter of splitting a salary in two, there are two lots of insurance and other benefits, plus handover time,” adds Wisener.
But if an employer gets it right, job share can work for all those involved. The Lloyds spokesman adds: “The benefits for the business include having twice the experience, skills and creativity being focused into a single role. It can also result in more innovation and productivity for the business, and in employees being more motivated and engaged due to having more flexibility and choice in the way they work.”
According to the Job Share Project, the appetite among senior women for job sharing is clear, with 61% saying they would like the opportunity to job share so they could work part-time. There are certainly attractions for men and women, particularly when it comes to feeling that the work is covered in your absence. The report also pointed out that job sharing can be an ideal way of phasing retirement. With an ageing population who will be working longer, perhaps it is one way of making the transition from work to retirement less painful.
And employer fears are usually unfounded, as an initially reluctant client told Wisener: “they have high levels of commitment, are working well together and are prepared to be flexible – I know it was tough to convince me, but you were right.”