‘We were far stronger than we would have been individually’: Job sharing in a pandemic

Two former directors general – now leadership coaches – share their observations of job-share partnerships in demanding times
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Have you noticed the striking resilience of job-share partnerships over the last year? We have watched them balance demanding civil service roles with all the other stresses of lockdown, and keep their equilibrium to a remarkable extent.

When we asked partners what kept them resilient, they were very consistent in their answers. They talked about the relief of knowing they could hand over to a trusted partner at some point in the week, aware that it would be counter-productive to log on whilst their partner was in charge. They valued the flexibility that allowed them to manage their commitments outside of work. They felt nourished by the mutual support, and the advantage of having two brains and two sets of networks to focus on a challenging issue.

Tessa Griffiths and Sarah Maclean share a director role at the Department for Education, implementing the rapid coronavirus testing programme for universities and schools. The pace and profile of the rollout was such that sharing the job brought built-in resilience and problem solving. It also meant they could split the necessary weekend cover between them and still spend time with their families. They say: “Job sharing has enabled us to share the challenges as well as the successes – we don’t think we would have made nearly as much progress without a job-share arrangement, which has now seen us through many demanding roles.”

Cora Govett and Harry Lund share a deputy director role at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, where they are responsible for a major piece of reform. They decided they would each cover the job full-time for two months, whilst the other person focused on family needs. Gemma Diamond and Mark Roberts at Audit Scotland decided to flex their usual arrangements to spread work across the week, so that they each had blocks of time available for home schooling.

Fran Oram and Sophie Langdale, directors at DfE, talk of how when exhaustion hit, they were able to cover for each other. “We could [each] sense when our partner needed support or a break and we knew the support would be reciprocated. Together we were far stronger in keeping up resolve in relentless times than we would have been individually.”

Joanna West and Alex Hurst are directors at the Home Office who were asked to cover a short-term director general role. They highlight the value of the job share to the organisation, in terms of joint problem solving, mutual coaching, and getting non-stop energetic commitment from the partnership.

We have many more examples from across the civil service and beyond, at all levels and in all types of role. 

Job sharing isn’t an option for everyone. The economics don’t always work, and some temperaments aren’t suited to sharing control. Our observation, though, is that more people would like to job share, if they felt the climate was receptive. This includes an increasing number of men.

The key advice to recruiting managers is to look for partners of equal ability and motivation who are committed to investing in making the relationship work, and can adapt to the changing needs of the role. The partnership may last for one job, or it may go on for many years: either way, job sharing has moved from being a novelty to a proven way of deploying leadership talent well. And we now know it can make a real difference to resilience.

As another job-share partnership said to us: “The two of us are some of the calmest people around. That’s because we can download and talk things through in a non-judgemental space.”

Hilary Douglas and Peter Shaw are former directors general in the UK government who now coach senior leaders through Praesta Partners. They are co-authors of a number of Praesta Insight booklets, including Job-sharing: a Model for the Future Workplace? (2018), The Resilient Leader (2020) and Leading for the Long Term (2021). These can be downloaded from www.praesta.co.uk

Read the most recent articles written by Hilary Douglas and Peter Shaw - ‘What is it that can only be done by us?’: preparing your team for a difficult winter

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