The Perks Of Being A Job-Sharer

Flexible work arrangements for officers are helping two public agencies hire and retain talent.
Mrs Tey (left) and Mdm Lim used to share updates on an Excel spreadsheet before leaving work. Now they just use WhatsApp to quickly relay non-sensitive information.

Imagine working two and a half days a week and having a close working partner too. For Mrs Tey Hwee Hoon and Mdm Lim Siew Hoon at the Central Provident Fund Board (CPFB), this has been a reality since 2009.

The pair are job-sharers, both filling the role of Senior Assistant Director in the Home Protection Scheme (HPS) Department. They jointly oversee policy administration, issue the HPS insurance policy to eligible members, and carry out policy reviews.

Job-sharing, a form of part-time work, is one of the flexible work arrangements the Public Service offers to encourage work-life harmony and draw those who need flexible work hours, especially mothers and retirees, into the workforce.

Why share jobs?

Mdm Lim and Mrs Tey are long-time CPFB staff who became part-timers to spend more time with their children. Mdm Lim, already on “75% part-time” since 2006, started exploring the idea of job-sharing after having her second child.

Meanwhile, at another department, Mrs Tey looked to work part-time after having her third child. She knew of a job-sharing pair in the CPFB and of Mdm Lim’s part-time arrangement. Formerly buddies in the same department, Mrs Tey approached Mdm Lim to be job-sharing partners.

Each spoke to their supervisors, who then sought their management’s views. A role that better suited job-sharing was recommended, and so Mrs Tey was posted to the HPS Department to join Mdm Lim. Both mums say the support of their bosses – and colleagues who accommodate their work hours – smoothened the transition.

On Mondays, Mrs Tey works in the morning and Mdm Lim in the afternoon; each then works two other days of the week. Mondays are for updates over lunch and meetings with staff. After six years, the two have become close friends who understand each other’s strengths and work preferences.

Ms Soh Tse Min, Deputy Director at the HPS Department, had a “pleasant surprise” when she took over supervisory duties in 2013. “I expected tension, friction, work that doesn’t flow as smoothly…” she says about job-sharing. “But in fact, I have no worries.”

She credits that to the pair’s efforts to communicate and be flexible. “It’s as if I only have one section head [to supervise].”

But it was not all smooth-sailing at first. When the pair handled projects as one, reporting staff found themselves giving repeat updates, says Mdm Lim. The pair then met with them to iron out the teething issues.

Now, they run projects separately. This also allows their supervisor to tap the pair’s different strengths. For example, “anything to do with money”, says Ms Soh, gets assigned to Mrs Tey, who has a sharp eye for numbers and discrepancies, while the ongoing review of the HPS goes to Mdm Lim.

The two come together to tackle thorny issues, looking from different angles. This initially resulted in thorough work, but with feedback from colleagues, they have learnt to be less fastidious so that staff need not redo tasks unnecessarily.

We had to learn to be very open and frankly tell each other what was not working well in the arrangement.

Operating optimally

Also sharing a job are Ms Lim Yu May and Ms Emily Kao at the Accountant-General’s Department (AGD). They each work five days a week – Ms Lim in the mornings, Ms Kao in the afternoons.

The two mothers work as Assistant Managers in the AGD’s cash management and payment operations. Ms Lim does the bulk of cash management, meeting at least two deadlines every morning. She has to work fast, so she tells staff what she needs early to give them time to act.

In the afternoon, Ms Kao checks that payments add up and are made on time. Besides resolving any issues from the morning’s dealings, she handles queries and helps with ad hoc projects.

Despite having known each other for just 10 months, they already work like a well-oiled machine.

While their colleagues have lunch, the pair spend their overlapping noon hour handing over information and discussing decisions. Ms Lim says: “Whatever we pass down to our staff will be the same, so it won’t be that I say A, and she says B.”

They also rely on standard operating procedures. Past emails are meticulously archived and used for reference, for example, on working with other agencies.

Communication matters

To work together, the job sharers have had to find ways to communicate well.

Mdm Lim, of the CPFB, says of her first conversation with Mrs Tey as job-sharers: “We had to learn to be very open and frankly tell each other what was not working well in the arrangement. Sometimes it can get a bit personal, so that was not a very easy conversation.”

“Yeah, I remember rehearsing what I had to say,” adds Mrs Tey, to laughter. “Is this how I should phrase it so that it won’t spoil the relationship? Will she understand what I’m trying to say?”

Over time, they became so at ease, they had to remind themselves not to “thrash things out” in front of subordinates. They continue to get regular feedback from their staff, which adds to the staff’s support of the arrangement and to its success.

Two heads better than none

For the AGD’s Deputy Director of Human Resources, Ms Cher Ming Hui, having the job-sharing option allows the agency to recruit “very good candidates, [who] cannot work full-time”.

A good officer in a part-time arrangement, she says, is much better than having no one to fill the role. She finds that roles that are more structured, such as operations, suit job-sharing well.

In contrast, the CPFB’s Ms Soh initially worried about how job-sharing might affect the HPS Department’s time-critical, public-facing operations work. “On first look, you’d think, can [job-sharing] work for operations, rather than, say, back-end support? That’s one of the mental models to overcome.”

Now, she believes that the feasibility of job-sharing does not depend on the industry or role, but on the mindsets of the people involved.

To have more flexible work arrangements, agencies should “work on the supervisors”, adds Ms Cher. “If the supervisors are open about this, they will help to make things happen.”

    Nov 26, 2014
    Siti Maziah Masramli
    John Heng
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