Job Sharing: Twice the Benefits or Double the Problems?

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You've heard all about it, but how can you make job sharing serve your business interests? Here are basic ways and long-term tips to ensure that you have two productive job sharers who are each happier than they were before.

OVERVIEW [top]According to the Society of Human Resource Management, at least 22% of U.S. companies now offer some type of job sharing. While the percentage is lowest in firms with fewer than 100 workers, the benefits of job-sharing arrangements merit consideration by entrepreneurs in growth companies. In this Quick-Read you will find:
  • The basic pros and cons of job sharing.
  • Tips to make a job-sharing program succeed.
  • An action plan to implement job sharing in your company.
SOLUTION [top] The term "job sharing" was first coined in the 1960s to denote one full-time job shared by two people. It is used when a position requires a full-time commitment or cannot easily be divided into two part-time jobs. Job sharing should not be confused with flextime or telecommuting, though these might be incorporated into a job-share agreement. It should not be confused with work sharing either. Work sharing occurs when an employer reduces the workweek of all employees (for example, from 40 hours to 36 hours in order to avoid a 10% layoff). Advantages
  • Reduced absences: Workers in two-income families increasingly take time off for personal matters ranging from medical appointments to childcare. Most companies, like Iowa-based window and door manufacturer Pella Corp., notice reduced absenteeism among job-sharing employees. Pella's job-sharing program reduced absenteeism among its production line employees (mostly working women with young children) from almost 6% to about 1%, and the company eliminated its previous need to overstaff assembly lines to maintain production rates.
  • Improved business continuity: If a job requires more than a 40-hour week and a necessary presence every day, two employees wishing to reduce their hours slightly can join forces to fill it. Job sharing also reduces bottlenecks caused by vacations and other absences, since the sharers usually cover for each other.
  • Retention of valued employees: Job sharing keeps workers seeking reduced hours, such as working parents, from being forced to quit your company to get time off. It can greatly reduce expensive employee turnover, which is especially important in key positions.
  • Increased productivity: Since job sharers have more time for personal matters, they tend to be more focused at work. Also, a shared job can provide workers an opportunity to divide tasks according to their individual skills or interests, leveraging their strengths while avoiding their weaknesses.
  • Smoother long-term operation: Pairing job-sharing workers in specific combinations can ease the impact of new training by having one experienced person in a position at all times, or cross-training employees in different functions. Likewise, you can soften the blow of an experienced person's retirement by reducing hours while a job-sharing partner gets up to speed.
  • Recruiting enticements: Offering job-sharing options gives you an edge over competitors in attracting loyal, quality workers seeking reduced schedules. Even candidates not interested in job sharing perceive companies with job-sharing programs as good places to work.
Drawbacks
  • More up-front planning and administrative work: Shared positions involve variables, ranging from individual hours and duties to pay and benefits, and require more time to set up than a standard arrangement. Plus, you'll need to keep records for two employees instead of one.
  • Increased communications challenges: Since each job sharer needs to cover for the other, effective communication between them is critical.
  • Necessary compromises between job sharers: On personal preferences ranging from record-keeping methods to the items kept in the desk.
  • Possible resentment among other employees: Regular employees — with or without justification — sometimes accuse job sharers of working less hard because they put in fewer hours.
  • Potential performance inequities: If one job sharer is more skilled or industrious than the other, he or she may begrudge that disparity — especially if the income of both parties is the same. It also may be harder for the boss to sort out the individual employee's problem behavior in a joint arrangement.
Tips for Success Most managers who have run job-sharing programs feel that the advantages outweigh the drawbacks. Here are some tips on how to make job-sharing serve your business interests:
  • Identify the jobs easiest to share. Functions most conducive to job sharing usually involve nonsupervisory skill positions such as administrative assistants, accountants or factory line workers. Management positions are often more difficult because subordinates may develop a preference for one of the "two bosses."
  • Have the candidates draft their own job-sharing proposal. This not only creates an arrangement they "own," but it saves you the time of doing it yourself. Chances are, you'll approve most of the proposal with only minor modifications.
  • Consider benefit reduction as part of the package. Most people seeking reduced hours have a full-time earner in the household who receives employee benefits. Ask prospects not needing benefits such as health insurance to consider waiving them in exchange for a suitable job sharing arrangement.
  • Develop a highly detailed work plan for the shared job, including not only individual job hours and functions, but provisions to handle situations involving each person's work when they are off.
  • Create a handoff plan for a smooth transition between job sharers, including not only notes on what was done and what needs to be done, but also some overlap time between the partners to discuss these matters. Ask that the two job sharers each spend a few minutes of unpaid time with each other before each transition, in return for your flexibility in permitting job sharing.
  • Implement a regular reporting plan to management, such as weekly or monthly reports.
  • Evaluate job-sharing partners individually. If one is more experienced than the other, consider giving the senior staffer oversight responsibility and pay the junior employee less. Be sure to review their work individually as well as together, just like your other employees. It's important to reward job sharers for personal performance, both for their own sake and to defuse accusations of unfairness by other employees.
  • Establish a trial period for each new job-sharing pair. Set a timeline after which the arrangement will be reviewed and continued only if it meets the approval of both partners and their manager.
REAL-LIFE EXAMPLE [top] "Must be able to work as part of a team" usually is help-wanted boilerplate. But at the Kendrew Group, Ltd., a Connecticut-based marketing and advertising agency, a job descript ion might include "Must be able to share a desk." Of the 25 employees all but two, the founder and CEO, Kathy McShane and the chief operating officer, are part time. Each shares a job with another employee. McShane instituted the setup nine years ago to reflect her core belief in life/work balance. While there are challenges to managing job sharing, the rewards are well worth it, McShane says. Advantages include the ability to tap a huge talent pool, eliminating burnout — an occupational hazard in the advertising industry — and having two brains working on the same project. "My people are dying to come back to the office after their 2 or 2 1/2 days off," she said. "Often they continue to think about a project while they're at home gardening or doing the laundry." The double-team positions also let one worker use his or her partner as a sounding board for ideas. McShane says she thinks of each team as a unit, so if one person in the team is not performing up to expectations, she considers it a failure of the unit, not the individual. "We're small enough that I can quickly assess whether the failure is caused by the system or the unit," she says. Once the problem is identified it is imperative to react quickly and remediate. The biggest challenge is hiring the right person in the first place. For the most part, individuals coming from large companies or agencies may not be the best hire. "They've been so involved in climbing the corporate ladder," McShane said. "They may be too concerned with their own goals for this kind of arrangement. The goal here is to keep the client happy, not worry about who gets the corner office." She suggests hiring a "multi-tasker" who can live with decisions made by his or her partner. Even team-oriented workers may need some encouragement to trust their other half. "The hard part is trying to convince the new member her job-share partner is not trying to do her in. At most companies people are trying to always cover their backs," McShane says. With frequent handoffs in the course of an assignment, team members must have good organizational skills. They also must share work ethic and other core values. McShane said training and supervising new team members is time consuming at first. But after the initial training, it takes no more time to manage job sharers than full-time employees. And because the arrangement reduces turnover, McShane doesn't have to go through the training drill too often. DO IT [top]
  1. Evaluate the feasibility of each job-sharing request you receive from an employee. Require the two prospective job sharers to develop a work plan, subject to your input and approval.
  2. After a prescribed time, review the arrangement with the two job sharers, and continue it only if it's working for all three of you.
  3. If initial job-sharing initiatives in your company are successful, consider facilitating such efforts in some or all parts of your company.
  4. If you endorse job sharing as a company policy, emphasize it in your recruiting efforts.
RESOURCES [top] Books Creating a Flexible Workplace: How to Select and Manage Alternative Work Options by Barney Olmsted and Suzanne Smith (AMACOM, 1994). See chapter 9: "Job Sharing." Work Sharing Case Studies by Maureen E. McCarthy, Gail S. Rosenberg, with assistance from Gary Lefkowitz (W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, 1981). See pgs. 129-160. Gender, Time, and Reduced Work by Cynthia Negrey (State University of New York Press, 1993). See chapter 6, "The Job Sharers." Internet Sites The Cornell University Job Sharing Expectations Checklist is an online document that outlines important information and expectations of a job-sharing arrangement and provides spaces for responses by employees and their managers. WorkOptions.com New Ways to Work Article Contributors Writer: John Duggleby and Brenda Russell
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