Job sharing: when two heads are better than one

Between 19-27% of Swiss firms are thought to offer job-sharing posts but overall numbers are unclear imago

Fancy sharing your job with someone else? The idea is slowly catching on in Switzerland with its high numbers of part-time workers. It especially appeals to women seeking more challenging, higher-paid work. Men, meanwhile, struggle against conservative attitudes to the workplace.  

This content was published on June 26, 2015

“Job sharing is the perfect solution for this complicated post,” says Blick editor Joel Widmer. 

Since April 2014 he has been sharing the position of head of political affairs for Blick GroupExternal link with his colleague Matthias Halbeis. They coordinate a team of seven reporters. This demanding post requires two people almost working full time. 

“We both work 80%. Our wives also work and we both have children. We wanted a day off for the kids. This is our first reason,” he explained. “The main newsroom is in Zurich but the political department is in Bern. The coordination demands are very high and I wouldn’t do them on my own. It’s a real advantage that you can take consolidated decisions with someone else.” 

Widmer and Halbeis are a rarity in Switzerland, where women in job-sharing far outnumber men.   

Job sharing is thought to have taken off in the United States in the late 1970s. In Switzerland, such flexible employment models are steadily growing in popularity to meet the demands of staff and the labour market. Between 19-27% of Swiss firms are thought to offer job-sharing posts (see infobox) but overall numbers are unclear. 

It was the subject of a recent seminar in Fribourg attended by 250 people, including officials from the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (Seco), as well as unions and Swiss employers. 

Greater flexibility

Irenka Krone-Germann, co-director of the association Part-time Optimisation (PTOExternal link) and organiser of the Fribourg event, is convinced job sharing has huge potential for further growth. Switzerland has the second largest proportion of part-time workers External link(36.5%) in Europe after the Netherlands – 59% of women work part time and 14% of men - she said. 

“There is a huge willingness among firms, especially after the February 9 [2014] vote calling for strict immigrant quotas as they see that they may lack qualified staff,” she added. 

Swiss insurer Axa Winterthur was one of a handful of firms present in Fribourg that offer job-sharing posts. 

“In general we promote flexible working as we see it meets the needs of our employees whatever their age or sex. We want to integrate employees and also keep them within the firm,” said Yvonne Seitz, a personnel manager at Axa Winterthur. External link

As well as greater flexibility, the benefits of splitting a post include sharing knowledge, particularly between experienced and younger staff, and better management of absences due to illness and holidays.  

“They often lead to greater innovation, better performance and allow us to find the best talent,” said Elena Folini, a human resources manager at Swiss telecom giant Swisscom. External link

Valérie Bovard, who co-manages a team of 20 nurses at the Lung Association in Fribourg External linktogether with her colleague Sophie Binz, said the employer definitely benefits from having two people on a single post. 

Men often cite their wish to spend more time with their families as the main reason for reducing their hours to do a job share. A 2011 study of 1,200 men in canton St Gallen by mä, the Swiss association of men’s and father’s groups, found that 90% of them wanted to work part time. 

Yet two men sharing a single management position is rare, accounting for only 2% of all job shares in Switzerland. The vast majority (90%) are held by two women. 

Attitudes to workplace roles and responsibilities remain conservative, and the idea of job sharing still provokes negative reactions. A 2014 survey of 1,200 business leaders by consulting firm Robert Half found almost a third believed that dividing the responsibility for a post between two employees could complicate relations within a team and adversely affect the functioning of the group. 

“Some of my colleagues look at me strangely when I say I work 50% as a house husband,” said father of four Claude HauserExternal link, who has shared a contemporary history professor post at Fribourg University with a colleague for the past 12 years. 

Shared power

“Male resistance comes from the notion that you can’t share responsibilities, that power cannot be shared,” he said. “Also, in the academic field it’s linked to the star system idea of professorships, where a university chair can only be occupied 100%. However, that idea is outdated. We work more and more in teams and job sharing is ideal in that sense.” 

Female motivation for job sharing may be different. 

Swiss women are catching up and overtaking men in terms of university education and qualifications gained, as well as numbers practising professions such as medicine, law and teaching. Meanwhile, women generally remain poorly represented in upper management; only 6% of Swiss CEOs are women. It is estimated almost 50,000 university-educated women are not active professionally, the majority of whom are mothers. 

The more highly qualified working mothers are, the more likely they are to work part time, Krone-Germann declared. Yet part-time positions can themselves present a number of disadvantages: restricted access to management positions, limited coverage at the work place, under-utilized skills and jobs without the possibility of advancement. 

Employment Holy Grail?

So is job-sharing the Holy Grail for employees seeking flexibility and a top-flight job and for employers pushing for greater staff productivity? 

“It only really works if you know each other well,” said Binz. 

Coordination can be a major headache, added Hauser. 

“One problem is that you sometimes don’t have time to communicate with your colleague and you can lose track of the work,” he said. 

Recruitment and monitoring can be more complex for the employer on top of additional costs for another workstation, computer or training needs. Fellow staff may also find it confusing having to report to two bosses. 

Swiss unions have generally welcomed the job-sharing model, but Valérie Borioli Sandoz, head of equality policy at the Travail Suisse unionExternal link, warned of dangers: “If job-sharing is only done by women, it further segments the work by sex which leads to wage discrimination that needs to be fought.” 

There is also a risk that two 50% job share posts on paper can expand into higher percentage positions with extra workloads but no additional pay. 

“You need to discuss this with your employer calmly. If 50% is not enough, you may need to insist it is actually paid as a 60% or 70% post,” she said. 

Switzerland is making slow progress but it still lags behind other central European countries, the union official claimed. 

“We are clearly behind other European countries, as we are for family policies in general,” she said. “But we shouldn’t lose hope. I have the impression that firms are taking the idea of job sharing seriously but the current level is so low and mentalities are such that we have a very long way to go.”

Swiss interest

A survey of 400 Swiss firms, employing 180,000 people, published in 2014 by the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland found that 27% offered job-sharing posts. Of these, one-quarter were management jobs. 

A separate 2014 survey of 1,200 business leaders – of whom 100 were Swiss – conducted by the consulting firm Robert Half, found that 19% of Swiss companies offered the possibility of job sharing to employees. Almost a third surveyed believed that dividing the responsibility for a post between two employees could complicate relations within a team and adversely affect the functioning of the group. 

According to the Robert Half survey, Britain leads the way with 48% of companies offering job sharing, with the European average standing at 25%. Only Germany is more reluctant at 15%. 

The exact number of people in job-sharing positions in Switzerland is unknown. The Federal Statistical Office is due to carry out a survey in 2016.

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