Sharing the load

Finding your management level job difficult to do on a full-time basis, but don’t want to downgrade? A job share might be the solution. Although job shares in senior posts are still relatively rare, they can be beneficial for both employees and employers.

Two people who have made a job share work for them and for their employer are Niamh Conroy and Katie Quinton who share the role of Global Brand Development Director – Becel/Flora pro.activ at Unilever, recently named Overall Top Employer at the Workingmums.co.uk’s Top Employer Awards.

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Before they started the job share the two women had already done the same job. Katie, who had gone down to four days a week after having her first child six years ago, covered Niamh’s second maternity leave. She says that, although Unilever is very flexible, encourages agile working and has many staff on four-day weeks, she was finding working a four-day week hard. “I was neither at home or at work properly and I think children need you more when they start school. Both sides were pulling hard on me so I went to my boss at the time and said I loved working for Unilever in marketing, but I didn’t quite have the balance right. I asked to do three days a week, fully expecting that they would not be able to deliver it. I didn’t want to leave Unilever, but I knew something had to give,” says Katie.

Instead of saying no, though, her boss looked for a more creative solution. Niamh was rung on maternity leave by a senior manager who asked if she might consider a job share. “It was not on my radar at all at the time,” says Niamh. “I had worked full time for around 18 years.” The manager explained that Katie was considering moving to three days a week and that Unilever was keen to keep its senior women. She felt that to make it work she would have to share with a like-minded person with similar values to her who she could trust to hand over the baton to and, having done handovers with Katie before her maternity leave, she knew her way of working.

“My gut feeling was that it could work,” she says. The two women met to chat a couple of weeks later. They realised they had a lot in common. Not only were they mums of young children [Katie’s children are now six and four and Niamh has two children aged five and two], but both have husbands who do high-powered jobs and have to travel a lot. “That was a key factor in my decision,” says Niamh. “I realised that going back full time with two young children and my husband away a lot would be hard. I had thought I would go full time for six months and see how I could manage it, but the job share gave me another solution.”

Practicalities

To kick off the job share, Katie laid out all the projects which were on the go and the two women explored different models of how it could work. They opted for a pure job share, where they shared the same goals and targets, rather than dividing specific tasks up, and spent days planning how it would work. They spoke to senior managers about their expectations of the role and to their team to explain the practicalities, where the potential tensions could lie and how it could be beneficial for them.

Niamh says: “People were generally very positive about the job share. Their concerns were around the decision-making process – whether they would have to run everything past the two of us – and who would do their annual reviews. We had anticipated those questions and knew that people could not be kept waiting for a decision. We also did not want anyone in the team to carry any extra burden.”

The two are copied in on every email and they can handle each other’s calls. “Basically speaking to one of us is like speaking to both of us together,” says Niamh.

They have had no negative feedback and no-one now questions the job share, they say. “It feels entirely natural,” says Katie. However, both admit that it has taken a lot of work and commitment on their part to make it work, particularly in the handover.

They have created a proforma which outlines the key topics, including personnel, project updates, decisions made and burning live issues.

On Tuesday nights Katie, who works Monday to Wednesday, jots down what has been happening on her watch and sends it over to Niamh. They usually meet up for one and a half hours on their crossover day – Wednesday – to catch up, unless they have meetings abroad, in which case they talk on the phone.

On Friday evenings Niamh writes detailed notes for Katie as they won’t meet up on Monday. The notes include not just what has happened, but the context in which it happened and the conversations around it. “Very often I don’t have to ring for clarification,” says Katie.

Having now worked together for almost two years, both women know very well where each other is coming from on any issue. Katie, who starts work at 8am on Mondays, says she checks her Blackberry for about 15 minutes every Thursday and Friday afternoon to keep abreast of email conversations and delete things she doesn’t need to retain.

Niamh says she spends two hours on a Tuesday evening going through emails and making a list of things she needs to do. They both have to hold back from responding to emails which come in on their job share partner’s days. “You have to be very disciplined and trust that your job is in very responsible hands on the days you are not there,” says Niamh. Katie agrees: “You need to remember you are just a passenger on those days.”

The two say that, even though they have to work a little during their days off, the mental freedom that only working three days a week and having someone to share the load and bounce ideas off affords them is priceless. “The business benefits from that. We are a lot more self sufficient as a team,” says Katie, who has 14 years of experience in marketing. “We have complementary skills and double the energy. If one of us has not been in a particular situation before we can be sure that the other has and knows how to deal with it so the company gets a lot more than six days out of us.”

“It really shows that two heads are better than one,” agrees Niamh.

Both women have nannies and supportive family networks which help to cover the schedules they work. For instance, they travel once a fortnight.

Spreading the word

Being such enthusiasts for how their job share is working, Katie and Niamh are keen to spread the word and have done coaching sessions and presentations both within Unilever and externally. “We are very proud of being trailblazers,” says Niamh.

“We realise a lot of women want to be in our position,” says Katie, “and by virtue of us talking about it they can have those conversations with their line managers.”

Unilever has a job share network where employees who are keen to job share can look for a partner with the right skills and experience.

Katie says that as well as commitment to the job share, it is vital that job shares park their egos. “We are naturally control freaks and have different ways of looking at the world and at problems, but we realise that we have to be committed to each other’s success,” she says. “We succeed and fail together,” adds Niamh.

A big motivator is that they have both been able to stay in their job at a senior level as both feel they could easily have been sidelined by going part time. “Someone told me a career is a marathon not a sprint so I can always go back to five days later,” says Niamh. In the meantime, both women are learning from each other.

They feel they work better as a result of the job share. “Katie keeps me on my toes,” says Niamh. Katie adds: “I don’t want to let Niamh down and she feels the same. It’s vital to be transparent and honest. If things don’t go well you have to be transparent so the other person can mop up. They also give you moral support. My husband says it feels like a marriage.”




Comments [2]

  • Anonymous says:

    Its great to see this approach working. Well done to Unilever too. The only disappointment is that it appears neither husband has made changes to their work-life balance to take on their share of childcare responsibilities.

  • Anonymous says:

    Well done Niamh and Katie for making this work and therefore paving the way for more of these opportunities in future. Very inspiring article.


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