If you can match your needs to those of your employer busy parents striving to strike a life balance may find a solution in job-sharing, writes Helen O’Callaghan.

SHE’S a working parent, heading into a typical week. At the office, she has to finalise a project, prepare a line-up of speakers for a conference and meet with a tricky client.

The home diary’s just as full: parent-teacher meeting, dental checks for two of the kids and the usual homework monitoring, ferrying to after-school activities, and running a home.

Like most working parents, she’s juggling to the point of exhaustion. 

She’s frustrated, feeling she’s striving hard, yet failing to deliver on all fronts. 

Something has got to give.

For many working parents, the solution lies in flexible working arrangements.

A 2015 RecruitIreland survey (in association with MummyPages.ie) found 95% of mothers would switch jobs for more flexibility — one in five sees job-sharing as better than other options (such as part-time). 

And 2016 research from Regus (global workplace provider) reports that 63% of Irish workers would decline a job that didn’t offer flexibility.

Michelle Mahon (left) and Fiona Crowley, who job-share as PA to to deputy chief Jerry O’Sullivan at ESB head office in Dublin. Picture: Fergal Phillips
Michelle Mahon (left) and Fiona Crowley, who job-share as PA to to deputy chief Jerry O’Sullivan at ESB head office in Dublin. Picture: Fergal Phillips

Maria, a Cork-based primary schoolteacher, will begin job-sharing this month. She decided after her third child was born.

“Working full-time with [even] two school-going children was a juggling act. Monday to Friday passed in a blur of alarm clocks, rushed breakfasts, school runs, work, homework and various club trainings and activities. 

"Friday evening was always welcome, but I’d blink, and it was Sunday evening — time to make lunches and get uniforms ready all over again.”

With baby number three, Maria realised she had to slow down. 

“Having spoken to friends who were job-sharing, I decided it was worth exploring. As a working mother, it’ll mean I won’t be pulled apart by either role. I’ll be with the baby for half the week, yet spend the other half in adult company, doing a job I love and don’t want to leave. 

"It means I’ll be ‘present’ in the afternoons as the older two come in from school instead of rushing to cook dinner, sort homework and only half listen to their chatter.”

Last year, 1,446 primary and 946 secondary school teachers job-shared. 

June 2016 figures confirm 5,768 civil servants are on a workshare pattern. 

Meanwhile, Ibec’s 2013 Flexible Working Arrangements report found of 91 companies (each with 50-99 employees), 35% had ‘permanent part-time’ arrangements operating, 23% had flexi-time and 8% had job-sharing. 

Where job-sharing was offered, uptake was 9% male, 91% female.

Mary Connaughton, director of Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development Ireland, points to a 2011 Ibec-conducted HR survey that found three in five companies — mainly bigger ones — allowed flexible working arrangements. 

Of these, 21% offered job-sharing — down from 30% five years earlier. 

“Job-sharing is becoming less popular because it’s less flexible,” explains Connaughton.

“Two job-sharers will be expected to cover Monday to Friday, but two part-time workers, each doing 20 hours and neither wanting to work Friday, could have the option of not working Fridays.”

Are you a working parent? Is job-sharing the answer to your prayers?

Job-sharing is a challenging arrangement, says Maeve McElwee, Ibec’s director of employer relations. 

“There’s huge reliance on a colleague to do half your job all the time. Unless it’s a basic admin role, it can be a difficult dynamic to get right.”

Some jobs suit job-sharing; others don’t. Work psychologist Patricia Murray says ‘more cognitive jobs requiring a lot of head space and strategising and that use the executive functioning part of the brain’ are harder to share. 

“It’s kind of invisible and individual and hard to communicate around that space. Whereas in a job with more concrete, defined tasks — 20 phone calls to be made, 10 emails to be sent, a spreadsheet to be done — the tasks are either done or not.”

Murray describes job-sharing as like a ‘work marriage’ or a synchronised swim. 

“There has to be collegiality. It’s a team of two. Each must be willing to communicate, share knowledge, and listen to the other person’s knowledge.”

If one person’s very outgoing and knowledge-sharing but the other is more passive and reactive, this can lead to problems, says Murray. 

“Colleagues might wish the former was in more often and wrongly perceive the latter as not competent, instead of just having a different style.”

Nor does somebody with very high levels of expertise necessarily make a good job-sharer.

“They tend to like working more on their own. They mightn’t trust a job-sharing partner would have the same expertise.”

Job-sharing doesn’t mean taking your foot off the gas because somebody else is on board with you. It means going the extra mile. 

“If you’re dividing 40 hours a week, it won’t work if you both do 20,” says Murray.

“You each need to do 22 so there’s crossover. Leaving a post-it won’t work. You need to do two hours face-to-face weekly to fill each other in.”

Are you a working parent? Is job-sharing the answer to your prayers?

And courtesy’s vital, particularly if sharing a desk — cluttering it with photos and cold cups of coffee or leaving a pair of runners under the chair just isn’t good manners. 

“Leaving the other person to spend the first part of their day tidying up your debris is not courteous.”

Essentially, job-sharing arrangements have to work for the employees and employers. 

“Remember, this is work, a company — they’re there to make a profit, they’re not there for your convenience,” comments Murray.

McElwee finds employers are largely open to flexible work arrangements but become concerned about managing it if every employee wants it. 

“They say: ‘If I agree it for this person, do I have to agree it for the next seven who look for it? And is it not unfair on these if I don’t’?”

For employers, there are definite pros to job-sharing. When one employee is on holiday or sick leave, there’s still 50% cover. 

“The work still gets done. And one partner might pick up the extra days while the other’s out,” says Connaughton. 

There’s also good knowledge spread and retention, points out McElwee: “Instead of just one person knowing the role, two do. And if one leaves, you retain the knowledge within the business.”

Another advantage — with information-transfer between job-share partners — is a good degree of efficiency and transparency.

“Things tend to be documented and task-oriented — a big advantage for employers,” says McElwee, who also cites goodwill of job-sharers who’ve got the flexible work arrangement they wanted: “They’re more engaged.” 

But there are downsides, says Connaughton, such as extra work for the employer, with a doubling of work-related documentation and a dual training investment.

“Companies can also struggle to find two potential job-sharers because they need to have similar skills and experience and be at the same job grade.”

If one partner leaves, it can be challenging to replace them — sometimes the other job-sharer might be asked to work full-time. 

“It’s tricky to manage. You might have had an agreement that this would happen but if the person [now] has children, they may be unhappy and struggling with all the balls in the air. It’s difficult for a manager to come up with a fair, reasonable solution.”

For the job-sharer who’s a parent, a big plus is achieving some of their needs around family life, while still being able to work — and on non-work days being able to switch off mentally because someone else is at the helm. But Connaughton says job-sharing doesn’t always offer sufficient flexibility to working parents.

“For parenting reasons, everyone wants to work mornings and be off afternoons. Each job-sharer mightn’t be getting the hours off they want.”

She cites another disadvantage: getting pigeon-holed by colleagues/managers as not interested in other career opportunities. “Yet, job-sharers may still want to push forward in their career.”

All kinds of unhealthy relational dynamics can emerge in job-sharing. Unhelpful attitudes can leak out, says Murray. 

“If one partner promotes the view that their way of working is better, that their partner is doing things less well, the job-share can become a minefield of quiet resentment. It can become toxic,” she says, pointing to 2004 research, which found when not happy with the partner/job, one party might strategically choose to withhold information from the other.

She also cautions managers not to introduce competition between job-sharing partners, while the British based Job Share Project warns of the triangle principle, where others play one job-sharer off against the other.

At home, mums and dads are busy relating to their children and to each other. The last thing they want at work is further relational challenges. Murray puts it in a nutshell: if opting for job-share isn’t easing your work pressure, you’re in the wrong job-share.

Quality time with the kids

NO DAY’S THE SAME

Fiona Crowley, an ESB worker from Lucan, is mum to Aoife, 19, and Ian, 17. She started job-sharing after Ian was born. 

Are you a working parent? Is job-sharing the answer to your prayers?

“The opportunity came up. I jumped at it. I wanted to spend more time with the children. It crossed my mind I should give up but we [Fiona’s married to Tim] couldn’t afford it. I didn’t want to lose my independence. Job-sharing was the best of both worlds.

“When I worked the children were in the ESB crèche. They benefited from that structured environment. The other week I had them to myself.

“When they were in primary school, I enjoyed picking them up, hearing all their news on the way home. The week I worked that was old news by the time I got home. Job-sharing made it easier to get childcare — you were only asking people to mind them part-time.

“In 2009, my co-worker retired. I started job-sharing with Michelle as PA to the ESB deputy chief executive. I knew Michelle to say hello to. The children were aged 11 and 13 at that stage. It meant I was able to bring my daughter to 5am swimming and my son to sports training in the evening.

“Michelle does three days — Monday-Wednesday and I do Thursday and Friday. We’re responsible for the same tasks — providing secretarial admin support, organising meetings, travel arrangements and conferences, dealing with people at all levels within ESB, as well as with government departments and customers.

No two days are the same.

“We need to be organised and efficient to make it work. The morning Michelle comes in, I’ll have a little ‘hello Michelle’ on her calendar and a list of everything that has happened and what’s outstanding for her to do.

She does the same for me. We have a Fiona/ Michelle folder, which is our survival. We put in our notes ‘see folder for details’.

“On non-work days, there’s no problem getting a quick phone call to clarify something. It happens very rarely. Michelle and I are alike in a lot of ways. We’re both enthusiastic and like to keep on top of things. We don’t like leaving stuff for the other to finish unless we have to.

“But though we know each other very well and work very closely together, we don’t really see each other. It’s like a virtual friendship.”

GREAT GOING TO WORK

Glasnevin-based Michelle Mahon has six children — Rachel, 11, Rebecca, 10, Sarah, 9, Joshua, 7, Thomas, 5, and David, 3. 

Are you a working parent? Is job-sharing the answer to your prayers?

Job-sharing since 2005, she had a different co-worker before Fiona joined her in 2009. She was pregnant with her first child when she opted to share her job.

“I wanted to spend more time with Rachel but I also wanted to maintain an active role in the workplace. I was fortunate that the ESB and my husband, Michael, were very encouraging. I was a bit worried about my boss, hoping he’d be okay with my decision — being a family man he thought it was a great idea.

“The other thing was the job had been fully mine. Now I’d have to share it with someone I didn’t know. I was hoping we’d get on, that we’d be able to communicate effectively and seamlessly, function well together, have the same outlook and trust each other.

Thankfully, both my co-workers have been wonderful to work with. Job-sharing is like a happy marriage – it requires trust, good communication, flexibility and compatible partners.

“I feel more motivated with just three days of work. It has definitely benefited me as a mum. I’m at home more of the week than I’m at work. Thursday to Sunday is chaotic — school, homework, play dates, excursions. Work doesn’t exist when I’m home with the kids. Then it’s great going into work: I forget I’ve a husband and six kids!

“I relish time spent with the children. I’d be a lot narkier if I was home all week, having to look after everything. I’ve seen so many [of the children’s] milestones — first words, steps, first days at school. I’d miss out on all those if I was full-time.”


Lifestyle

As we wait, eager and giddy, a collective shudder of agitated ardor ripples through the theatre, like a Late, Late Toyshow audience when they KNOW Ryan’s going to give them another €150 voucher. Suddenly, a voice booms from the stage. Everyone erupts, whooping and cheering. And that was just for the safety announcement.Everyman's outstanding Jack and the Beanstalk ticks all panto boxes

Every band needs a Bez. In fact, there’s a case to be made that every workplace in the country could do with the Happy Mondays’ vibes man. Somebody to jump up with a pair of maracas and shake up the energy when things begin to flag.Happy Mondays create cheery Tuesday in Cork gig

More From The Irish Examiner