Job-sharing: the secret to a productive and happy workforce?

Job-sharing could be the "secret" to work/life balance, according to business magazine Forbes. When you're not in the office, it's reassuring to know that somebody else is – and they're taking care of your work.

But for two women at law firm Herbert Smith Freehills, sharing the one job has provided a lot more: an opportunity to demonstrate to the partnership just how such work arrangements can be productive and keep more women in the workforce.

Job-sharing usually involves two employees performing one role. It's an opportunity for one half of the sharing arrangement to clock on when the other half clocks off.

Freehills diversity manager Danielle Kelly, who shares her job with Georgina Brown, says such working arrangements can be beneficial to law firms, where retaining female talent into leadership roles is difficult. Most large law firms have a female partnership rate of about 20%.

A former lawyer, Kelly saw the challenges of working part-time in a busy practice first-hand upon returning from her first maternity leave in 1999. "The closer I got to returning, I wondered 'how is this going to work?' There were actually no lawyers working part-time; the only part-time people were secretaries. There were no role models."

She's happy to say much has changed in 13 years at the firm. Today, about 35% of the firm's female senior associates work part-time. "There are role models for it in every practice group, so it's a very different landscape now."

Still, Kelly concedes it can be hard.

"It can be difficult to work say three days a week in a transactional practice, when there's no one minding your practice on those other two days. I think the more we can set up job-shares the better," she says. "But it requires creative thinking on behalf of the partner, the P&D and the individual who needs to take ownership of it – rather than waiting for a solution to be presented to them."

And it requires the firm to recognise the value it gets out of part-time employees.

"I certainly think the firm gets good value out of the part-time people because most of them do more than their days, in the same way a lot of full-time people do that too," adds Kelly.

But job sharing can help such productivity benefits even further, while allowing an employee to switch off outside of the office by knowing their job-share partner's looking after the role. "Job sharing makes you more accountable. Having a job-share colleague that creates daily accountability is a good thing for the firm. There's no taking a cruisey day."

Making flexible work successful

Kelly believes part-time work and job-sharing arrangements are successful when clear expectations from both the employee and their manager our outlined from the outset. This can include identifying the ambitions of the employee, their ideal rate of career progression and just how plugged in to their work they plan to be on their days off.

"We encourage communication and to ask questions like 'who will look after your work on the other two days, what level of contact do you want on the days you're not in the office? Are you happy to check emails and if so, around what time? Or do you not want to make contact?' Which, let's be honest, means you may have a slower career progression than someone who is prepared to do that and that's a choice that you're making," says Kelly.

Ultimately, notes Kelly, people have different ideas on how they want to work part-time. "Some women want to work part-time and still have that goal of becoming partner within the next five years. Other women prefer a backroom role for 12 or 18 months while their child is young and want to know that they can leave the office generally at 5.15. It's actually really good to know that – to make that really clear."

By exploring such options, managers can determine which flexible arrangements will work best for the lawyer, while appreciating their ultimate career ambitions.

Much of Kelly and Brown's role involves encouraging conversations between partners and their lawyers regarding how part-time and job-sharing arrangements can work. Engaging men in the conversation is key, says Kelly, as is challenging partners to rethink their assumptions about the ambitions of lawyers who work part-time. The firm regularly runs workshops to help.

As for Kelly's job-sharing arrangement, she says she doesn't tend to tell people the hours and days she works, noting having somebody available on the days that she's not makes such hours largely "irrelevant".

"I still find it amazing how you can be in the lift and you haven't seen someone in a while and they'll ask that classic questions to people they know don't work full-time, 'How many days are you working now?' It's irrelevant. I don't like to be defined by it."

Angela Priestley

Angela Priestley is the Publisher and founding editor of Women's Agenda. She's an author, journalist and passionate advocate for workplace gender equality and diversity. Her first book is Women Who Seize the Moment.

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