Job sharing: How two heads can be better than one

15 May 2018 | By Pip Brooking

As more employees demand more flexible working patterns, senior job sharers from Aviva, BBC and Tesco make the case that more people can job share than you might think

More than two in five hirers would consider candidates for a senior role as part of a job share, according to Timewise research. But despite rising demand for flexible working many employees continue to fear that ‘working less’ will hamper their career progression. Here, we interviewed three senior job-sharing couples – winners of Timewise Power 50 awards – who have challenged perceptions and proved what can be achieved:

Will McDonald and Sam White, Group Directors of Sustainability and Public Policy, Aviva

Q. What’s the background to your job share?
Will McDonald:
We started last summer. It was relatively simple to ask for. Both of us had worked in the role: Sam had been doing the group director job for about six years, and I’d acted up from my role as UK director when Sam was on parental leave for his second child. When Sam came back, we already had someone covering my job as UK director, so the move didn’t impact on a lot of people. And we’d both already passed the “competence test”.   

We were a bit nervous as, as far as we know, we’re the most senior all-male job share in the country – and Aviva had never done a director-level job share before. But we pitched it as a six-month trial. That meant we could prove to everyone – ourselves included – that this was going to work out.

Q. How do you think your job share benefits the organisation?
Sam White:
Two heads are better than one. We bring with us different instincts and experiences, and we use each other as a sounding board for leftfield ideas that we might not otherwise vocalise.

There’s also inbuilt flexibility. Although we try really hard to stick to our three days each (we overlap on Wednesday), and it’s important we’re seen as doing one job, we can cover important events if one of us is on holiday. I was also able to dial it up for one day extra a week for a number of months to cover when one of our deputies left.

Q. Would the job share work if you didn’t get on?
You don’t have to like each other, you have to trust each other and aim for the same things.

WM: We spoke to a lot of other job sharers before we approached our boss about doing this. One of the ideas that came through was having a contract between each other so you’re both really clear about what you’re doing and how you’re going to do it.

So we have an intensely practical set of principles on one side of A4 that includes things like ‘we will always share credit’ and ‘we will always take decisions – when you’re in charge, take charge’. Another example would be a rule about no festering. It’s like a work marriage – good communication is key.

Q. What’s been the biggest challenge?
 A good handover is crucial. It’s absolutely at the heart of making a job share work. We overlap on Wednesday so we do a good verbal one then, but we also both leave a written, templated handover, which captures everything from immediate priorities through to the longer-term strategic stuff, and the all-important corridor conversations that you need to be aware of. We want to appear seamless on the outside, so that if you told one of us something, you told both of us.

Q. How would you describe the reaction to your job share?
Very positive, for all sides. As well as making it work for our Execs, we manage a team of just over 20 – and clearly it has to work for them. But because your time to make a difference in work is less than if you were doing it full time, and you are motivated to hand over significant progress to your job share partner, it makes you much more focussed on what people need you to do and how you’re driving forward your priorities.

It also requires the team to be very clear about what they need and when, but that’s a healthy habit.

SW: From a wider perspective, we quite like it if we encounter a ‘real men don’t job share’ world view, because we’re up for the fight of showing that job sharing is a wonderful opportunity. We get to spend more time with our kids, and we get to support our wives – who both wanted to get back into work. And when you’ve got a lot of discussion about the gender pay gap in the media, this is one of the ways to tackle it.

Q. What would you say to firms thinking about offering job sharing for the first time – or to employees wanting to ask for it?
: Give it a try. We tried it for six months. It is working really well. I don’t think either of us are looking to job share forever, but it matches up with where we are in our lives at the moment – and that makes us better workers.

Kelly Crawford and Jonathan Aspinwall, Deputy Editors, BBC Breakfast

Q. What’s the background to your job share?
Kelly Crawford:
I’ve been part time since I had my oldest who is now 13 and the good thing about our jobs is that a lot of it is shift work. But with BBC Breakfast’s relocation to the north, this role felt more like a job and a half – it needed someone else.

Jonathan Aspinwall: At the time they were searching for a second person to do Kelly’s other half, I was adopting two kids. I needed the flexibility.

Q. How would you say it works between you?
It’s very much a team effort that’s evolved over time. We have different strengths and we look after different bits of the programme. But we mix it up a bit, so it keeps everything fresh. We also join forces on certain projects and we cover for each other.

We both have a strong work ethic and we’re very committed to the programme. I always know that if I need to get hold of Jonathan when he’s not working he doesn’t even blink about answering. And vice versa. So the programme gets more than us as individuals – it gets quite a big package out of just two of us.

JA: It’s not just about the workload but it’s also about the different contacts we’ve got, and the different ideas. Our boss is getting two perspectives on the major decisions that he’s making. Both of us also live real lives – and the fact we do so much outside work is so important in terms of contributing ideas and understanding our audience. 

Q. What has been the reaction both in- and outside the organisation?
KC: The team think it’s a fantastic working model because they get two for the price of one. Very few people are working five days a week in the office and because everyone’s shifts are all over the place continuity isn’t an issue.

JA: You just have to train people a bit and be quite assertive about when we’re each working.

Q. What’s been your biggest achievement you’ve been job sharing?
JA: At the moment we’re revamping our social media and doing a lot of work on that together. I’m really proud of how we’re approaching that – we’re pulling in external people, recruiting a new team, and we both challenge each other’s thinking. 

KC: We’ve both naturally got quite a lot of energy. Shifts are tough, but because we’re not full time, we both come into work giving it full welly every single day.

Q. What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to work out together?
KC: The biggest challenge is to get your relationship in a pattern that you’re both happy with – and getting to where we’re at now in that it is okay to keep other people in the loop on their days off.

JA: It’s always quite easy to undermine someone else’s authority when they’re not in the office and to unpick a decision that they’ve made. So it’s about making sure that you have that respect for the other person’s decision.

Q. Do you think from your experience job sharing is something that can and should be done more widely?
I’d like to see more management doing it, creating more role models. It is easier than people believe it is. I’ve been sceptical about it in the past and people make assumptions. But you can see what we deliver. More people would benefit from the better work life balance and the better mental state of mind.

KC: Both of us feel that this doesn’t inhibit our ambition. We could go forward as a job share couple. It doesn’t feel like the conversation’s over between us when either of us decides that we’ve had enough of this job.

Q. And what advice would you those thinking about doing the same?
JA: Find out how you think it could work. Tackle people’s fears head on, whether it’s worries about communication, continuity or how it will work for the team. We micromanaged all the solutions and presented them to our boss so that he could see past them to the potential.

Ashley van Hoeven & Laura Doig, Area Managers, Tesco

Q. You’ve been job sharing together for 11 years now, how did the opportunity arise?
Laura Doig: Fortunately we had a very forward thinking boss. We’d both worked together previously and were both due back from maternity leave at the same time – and he suggested we try a job share. We were the first in the company to work in this way.

Q. You’ve been promoted since, but how did you make it work as store managers?
Ashley van Hoeven:
It was relatively straightforward to act as individuals while working towards the same goals and priorities.

LD: But so that every team manager got the opportunity to spend time with each of us on a more structured basis, we worked in 12-week blocks where I would do one-on-one meetings with one batch and Ashley would do the other, and then we would switch over.

Q. And how has that changed as area managers?
The fundamentals are the same – we’ve just made tweaks because we’re now working remotely.

LD: It’s important that we see equal amounts of each shop.

AvH: The number of meetings we have to be at is the more challenging part. We both end up doing extra days.

Q. What has been the reaction to your job share?
It's difficult to change people's mindset of how it works. We’ve been promoted to different store manager roles, but that took quite some time – because there was still apprehension over whether it would work in a bigger, more complex store. And it’s still not the norm. Until a couple of years ago, there was only us doing it at this level.

But we’ve always championed the fact that a job share can work in any business or discipline if you want it to work – and that’s been reflected in how well we’ve done over the past 12 years.

Q. How do you think the organisation benefits from your job share?
Ashley and I are two very different people and we've got different strengths. That brings more to the table. And we get that feedback from our team. There are things that they'll pull from each of us and if they just had one manager, they might not have grown in their thinking.

For the business, we can be 100 per cent flexible. In a week where your workload’s really heavy, a full-time equivalent would have to work six or seven days anyway. We’re doing that between us, so it's not as draining mentally or physically and the business is always getting 100 per cent of us.

Q. What’s been the biggest challenge?
Our toughest time was when we were in our smallest shop. There was no middle man at all, so everything relied on our communication, our consistency.

AvH: But that gave us the grounding to tackle people’s fears quickly every time we go into a new store. The way we’ve adapted, both personally and together as a job share, is also our biggest achievement. In some ways, our promotion was almost like starting the job share from scratch. In store, for example, we had a dictaphone to pass information to each other. Expand that by 22 shops and 13 managers, and that wasn’t effective anymore.

Q. What advice would you give to companies thinking about offering job shares for the first time?
The future generation is coming through and making it very clear that they want their career to have more flexibility in it. What people want in life is changing. The companies that don't actively help people trying to do that are the companies that will fall behind in the future.

AvH: The biggest thing is for companies to see it as an opportunity, not to look at reasons why it wouldn't work. And I don’t think it has to be looked at only something for people coming back from having children.

LD: This should also be viewed from the point of view of people reaching retirement age. How helpful would it be for someone new into a role to be mentored in a job share by someone who is winding down to leave a business who has years and years of experience?

Join the discussion