Job Sharing Can Help Retain Tech Workers. But It’s Not Easy.

Job sharing is one of the most interesting, least talked about opportunities for flexible work. It’s usually where two people split the week to fulfill the needs of one role, or perhaps one role that has grown to more than 40 hours a week.

Such arrangements can be a long-term contract or a finite one, like to accommodate new parenthood. It’s shown to support retention and recruitment of marginalized groups, especially in senior roles, while also supporting more global coverage in this 24/7, always-on economy.

In this final installment of a three-part series on flexible work arrangements in the aftermath of COVID-19, we explore job sharing in the tech industry and beyond, as a way to attract and retain talent and to help keep industry-endemic burnout at bay.

The Pros and Cons of Job Sharing

With much of the tech industry not rushing back to the office, remote-first companies are able to hire people from anywhere, working under the conditions and the flexibility that’s best for them. Formal job sharing is a way to facilitate work-life balance without neglecting what needs to be done.

Surprisingly, though, job sharing hasn’t seen a notable uptick in the tech industry, despite high levels of burnout and fierce competition for developers and engineers. Job sharing is also an opportunity for those who have left the tech industry — for reasons such as caring for family, getting a degree, or burnout — to re-enter in a more time-boxed way, usually in harder-to-fill senior roles.

“We shouldn’t have to either/or. There should be some better bridges” between work and life, said Jessica Charlsen, co-founder and co-CEO of Job Share Connect, which helps organizations set up shared roles, largely in tech and tech-driven industries like healthcare and finance. “Job sharing bridges you through different points in your life.”

For employers, it’s not just about attracting and retaining talent. As distributed systems grow more complex, job sharing is also an opportunity to bring two specialists with complementary skills together into one role, without having to find and pay for a single technologist who knows everything.

Instead, the people sharing one role can learn from each other. This type of overlap results in cross-training two or more people, which increases team resilience in times of high turnover.

Overall, job sharing has been associated with the improvement of team diversity, productivity, processes, and innovation in human resources management. However, it’s not the easiest flexible work arrangement to implement.

Job-sharing relationships are often initiated by the employees, who see a need for work-life balance or recognize that the demands of the role have expanded past 35 to 40 hours a week.

“As a human there are times in our lives that we need to focus less on work. That doesn’t mean that you’re bad at your job.”

— Jessica Charlsen, co-founder and co-CEO, Job Share Connect

The practice is mostly found in public companies, education and care sectors. This is the case in the U.K., where employers are required to consider any application for job sharing. But organizations usually lack the structure to match up partners.

“You still have to know someone to do it with, and the [job] application process isn’t really built for it,” said Sam Brown, a tech ethics consultant, to The New Stack. “The problem with job sharing in the private sector is most places don’t advertise for it or even have a system for accepting their applications.”

A 2019 study of job sharing in senior leadership roles in higher education in the U.K. found that, when the right environment is set up, a job share can positively impact participants’ motivation, commitment, continuity and energy. The study also identified some factors that support job-sharing success:

  • Clear expectations up front, including the end of the job share.
  • Shared management workload and demand as burden scales. “At stressful times my blood pressure would drop if I heard your voice,” one of the study participants said of their job-share partner.

“Job sharing is both tricky and wonderful if done properly with the right person. There has to be an overriding commitment to the other person, huge amounts of loyalty and respect are essential,” one of the study participants observed.

The study concluded that some leadership roles can be even more successful as a result of a job share.

However, it’s not all roses: women who successfully job share are often passed up for promotions, as one or both participants’ work is less acknowledged, as highlighted in the book “Gender and Diversity in Management.”

A book published by researchers at the Open University of Catalonia also highlighted the risk of potential conflicts if there’s a poor pairing up. This is further amplified, the study authors wrote, when role accountability and responsibilities aren’t clear, which can contribute to a duplication of effort.

Why Matchmaking Matters

A job share is typically 50/50 but “it’s very flexible, depending on the needs of two people on a team,” said Charlsen, of Job Share Connect.

Most commonly, a job share schedule would run Monday-Tuesday and Thursday-Friday, with a full-day overlap on Wednesdays, “for shared meetings, full transitions, any downloading and any meetings,” she said. For some roles, the overlap is only a couple of hours, with a soft handoff.

As job sharing in the tech industry is a fairly new arrangement: “Our biggest hurdle today is there are employers who don’t often think they’d want to.” Her company is typically enlisted when an employer is having difficulty filling a full-time and usually more senior role. Job Share Connect also receives inquiries from individuals on existing teams who want to turn their current positions into job shares.

Who is currently attracted to job sharing? Charlsen finds it’s mostly people who don’t have the ability or desire to work more than 30 hours a week, and those that aren’t engaged in the workforce currently. Some want to spend more time with their kids, while others are retired, but looking for more income or stimulation. Some job-share candidates are also either starting their own business or working on a graduate degree and need the financial support.

In such a competitive talent market, a job share can be an attractive benefit that many organizations still aren’t considering. “What employers don’t realize is they have talent at risk, that they could retain if they offered [job sharing] as a benefit,” Charlsen said. “Complex organizations who would love to offer their top talent reduced hours, but there are people in the org who need you.”

When Charlsen spoke to TNS, she had just recruited and helped onboard two women to share the marketing director role at a tech company. The company had been finding it hard to find one person that met the job requirements of both an inspirational leader and business strategist who could measure and analyze results.

“It seemed like two brains. What if we provide two people who can cross-train and upskill each other?” Charlsen said. “Be smart with talent, looking at complementary skills to be able to unlock this potential.” Now, in the new shared role, each person will work 30 hours a week and earn a six-figure salary, with no expectation of checking their phones on days off.

Job sharing can be a bridge to more full-timers as a business scales. Client demand on a particular role may grow to an untenable 40, 50, or 60 hours a week. Burnout happens when that effort is laid on one person.

“If you are really getting 1.2 hours out of someone,” she said, “you should up your budget.”

Opportunities for Skill Sharing and Upskilling

Some tech roles in particular may be especially suited to job sharing.

Developer relations is a seemingly ever-expanding, and often poorly defined, role that involves a plethora of technical and social traits. More oblique roles like this make for excellent job-sharing candidates, as they often involve tasks associated with different personality types.

In a podcast conversation last year, Jessica Rose told me about her experience in job sharing as a developer relations consultant at CodeSee. Along with Ramón Huidobro, they made up one DevRel headcount. The pair started swapping off 2.5 days a week each, but eventually, they both worked half days, often evenings to overlap with their West Coast colleagues.

“Logistically it’s been fantastic — Ramón is a much stronger JavaScript developer than I am and he’s got a lot of fantastic skills that I don’t have,” Rose said, while she brings more strategic experience.

“As an early stage startup hiring, you need somebody who can do both of these skill sets and hiring for both of these is rather challenging. What if we split this in half?”

Splitting roles can also help assemble a true full-stack team, drawing on the experience of several developers and engineers, some of whom perhaps only work part time.

Job sharing is a good fit for people working on side projects and, of course, those with caring responsibilities. Another tech worker group that is particularly attracted to sharing — returners. “Folks that have left the tech industry and then come back, start with job sharing,” Rose said, as it can be a really fantastic way to get senior talent that needs a little bit of support coming back in.

Roles like developer relations make for excellent job-sharing candidates, as they often involve tasks associated with different personality types.

However, job sharing is not cost-free. Usually, partners overlap, especially for the handover, so many companies are paying a bit more than a single full-time salary in total. There is extra overhead for communication, Rose reminded, with twice as many one-to-ones, but the end payoff is greater.

“It does mean that you get twice the skill set and twice the perspective, and together, even with the extra communication overhead, we’re able to do a lot of stuff that we wouldn’t be able to do either by myself or by himself,” she said.

Of course, it’s important to remember that, even with high-tech salaries, not everyone can afford a less-than-full work week. “I want to recognize I’m impossibly privileged in this situation,” Rose said, as she often works with U.S. startups but lives in Birmingham, U.K., which has a much lower cost of living.

Implementing a job-sharing strategy should absolutely be about offering an opportunity for flexible work, not a way for companies to evade paying benefits.

Informal Job Sharing and Tech Consulting

Informal job sharing is as old as the tech industry itself. A three- or four-day work week may be just at one job. It may be a main job and a side hustle. It may be consulting on two or more projects at a part-time capacity. Or it can be two people sharing one role, bringing different skills.

“I’ve two projects and want to work on both of them, so I’m personally more than happy to split them several ways. Only pain for me is handover costs, but I gain much more getting the people I want without compromising between who I choose,” Kingsley Davies, a U.K.-based software delivery consultant, told The New Stack.

“I also like the fact it’ll force work to be chunked into small batch sizes,” he continued. By cutting the sprint story load in half for one person, it should naturally align with agile and microservices principles of building more composable applications and continuously deploying.

However, Kingsley also has previous experience of informal job sharing suddenly going awry. In one of his projects, his flexible working partner had to unexpectedly leave their project for personal reasons. This left Davies to cover the workload of 1.5 jobs instead of two half-time jobs, while trying to find a new partner.

Informal job sharing through consultancies offers a lot of opportunities for continuous learning and growth, while offering a fuller service to clients, but it can also lead to burnout. An informal agreement and plan should be drawn up at the start of any sharing relationship.

Meeting the Demand for Job-Sharing Roles

Organizations can drive job-share adoption by creating and publishing policies before they’re presented with an opportunity to set up a job share partnership. Job Share Connect offers job share templates to employers.

“There’s no shortage of people that want to do this,” Charlsen said. “It’s a shortage of roles.” Job Share Connect’s talent pool is 86% women with bachelor’s degrees, with the majority having at least a master’s degree, and more than 10 years’ experience in their fields.

“As companies continue to say, ‘I have a workforce issue,’ — are you actually trying creative things?” she asked.

She calls this “an immediate fix of really providing new ways of people who are ready to work [and] have the experience. It’s people who know what they want to do, and they know how to get the job done right. They just don’t have the opportunity.”

To learn more about how to retain developer and engineer talent, check out this recent New Stack podcast:

The New Stack is a wholly owned subsidiary of Insight Partners, an investor in the following companies mentioned in this article: Coast.

Featured image from  “My Life Through A Lens” on Unsplash.