A civil servant’s guide to… job sharing

Written by Kate McGavin and Helen Williams on 21 March 2018 in Feature
Feature

Kate McGavin and Helen Williams, deputy directors from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, are part-time, ambitious, and happy to share – both their job, and their wisdom on making a success of this increasingly popular way of working

DCMS job sharers Helen Williams (left) and Kate McGavin (right). Photo: DCMS

If you want to job share then your first and most important decision is who you share with. For us that was easy. We have known each other for all of our civil service careers. We both joined the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) in the early 2000s as fast streamers and worked closely together in then secretary of state Tessa Jowell’s private office.

After this, as our careers took in roles from Channel 4 to the Treasury, we remained in regular contact and always had, between us, a sense of mutual support and respect.

After two children each, we both found ourselves at a point where job sharing seemed like a good choice: a way of maintaining some work-life balance but with the levels of responsibility and ambition that we have always enjoyed. With the Department for Transport recently appointing Polly Payne and Ruth Hannant as the first director general job share, it’s increasingly clear that we aren’t alone in thinking this.

So here we are, seven months into sharing the deputy director portfolio for arts, libraries and digital culture in DCMS. We lead on arts policy, including the relationship with Arts Council England, which invests over £600m a year in the cultural sector, public libraries and the Digital Culture project, which examines how the cultural sector is engaging with technology. It is an interesting, high profile job with a fascinating array of stakeholders and strong links to government priorities.


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Of course, job sharing requires careful thought about how you are going to work together. We decided to share responsibility for every area of our work. Like many job shares we each work three days a week and cross over on a Wednesday. Communication is key – we really want to avoid people telling us the same information twice. So it was encouraging when last month one of our stakeholders said: “I spoke to Kate, no Helen, no Kate, yesterday – I don’t know which of them it was, they are seamless”.

We have worked hard to make our job share a success, but as every older sibling and coalition government knows, sharing takes some getting used to. The vital thing we have learned is to leave your ego at the door. For us there is no individual glory or failure – we share it all. Our success relies on both of our performances, but also on the strength of our relationship. What comes with this adjustment are big rewards for job sharers and for managers.

“As every older sibling and coalition government knows, sharing takes some getting used to”

For us, the formula for a successful job share is equal parts chemistry and practicality. You need to respect and trust each other and, quite simply, like spending time together. But the practical measures are just as important. For instance, we have an agreed format for handover notes that covers priorities for the week, read out of key meetings and details about the team. We also make sure we take a half day every quarter for a strategy meeting to talk both about what we’ve achieved and upcoming challenges, and how the partnership is working so that we can tinker with the mechanics if necessary.

People often ask us how we resolve disagreements or differences of approach. We find that regular, structured communication means that this almost never happens because we can talk things through and agree an approach before differences of opinion might arise. The most important thing to avoid is these discussions becoming a substitute for consultation and open debate with the team about the best approach, so we’re always careful to involve our teams as well.

Our top reasons why job sharing is a seriously attractive proposition for employers and sharers alike​

Why employers benefit from job sharing

Two brains are better than one. When you recruit a job share partnership you get two sets of experience, two perspectives, two skillsets. We have a medley of experience between us: Helen has worked on economic policies at HM Treasury and the business department; developed end-to-end strategies in multiple roles particularly focused on culture; and has experience of organisational risk and financial management of arm’s length bodies. Kate has a background in strategic and regulatory policy, mainly in the media sector including a secondment at Channel 4; as well as work on digital service delivery at Jobcentre Plus and corporate roles running departmental capability reviews out of the Cabinet Office. Our history in ministerial private offices gives us both fine-tuned political antennae that bind our perspectives.

You will be recruiting skilled communicators and collaborators. Job sharing relies on extensive, excellent communications and trust. Successful partners are natural team players, generous with their ideas and feedback. We have had to learn about each other’s style and preferences and find an effective rhythm to how we work but this was helped by the fact that we have known each other for many years so we were able to build trust quickly.

A focus on strategy and delivery. Sharing our work has helped us to think strategically about what we want to achieve and to prioritise clearly. As a partnership we have to maintain that focus so that we are always pushing in the same direction. It is this emphasis on progress and pace – something that was less potent when we were lone operators – which has added a genuine positive energy to our work. It is a quality that people around us often comment on.

Why job sharing is great for staff

Turbo-charge your learning. Being part of a job share is better than any training course you’ll ever go on. It costs nothing and is tailored to your needs! You will benefit from your partner’s experiences and perspectives and you’ll get their feedback on your approach. We have found it fascinating to see how the other thinks and the experience they bring to bear on an issue. It allows you to look under the bonnet of how someone else operates in a way that never seems possible in other working practices. We often have little stints coaching each other and it is uplifting to get feedback on things we had no idea we were good at.

A problem shared is a problem halved. Work can be an isolating experience, particularly in senior roles. Job sharing is the ultimate antidote. We now constantly bounce ideas off each other and sense check our thinking. We always deal with the most important matters together, but that doesn’t lessen our individual authority – when each of us is in the office then that is the person in charge.

Don’t curb your enthusiasm. Job sharing allows you to really enjoy a job and we have found it to be very motivating. The most recent Civil Service People Survey results reveal that job sharers feel 3% more engaged and included than the average. We are surprised it’s not even higher. Both of us find ourselves throwing everything we have at the three days we’re in the office, so the main risk we have to guard against is exhausting our team.

About the author

Kate McGavin and Helen Williams are deputy directors from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

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