The supermarket chain Asda last week implemented a fundamental change, appointing its first job share store managers, Kate De Fraja and Gary Hopson, who will together work 54 hours per week managing the company's Barnsley store. It is the pilot of 10 such roles to be launched in stores around the country from April. But clashes of personality have led to some spectacular dream-team crashes in other sectors. Could it work at senior level in such a large, hectic environment - and what benefits could there be?
Mrs De Fraja, 36, the mother of three young children and wife to an academic professor, has been a leading proponent of the idea. She wanted to encourage more women into the upper echelons of management, and immediately saw how attractive a part-time, responsible position was to those who choose to prioritise family over career. She realised this on a personal level after four months' maternity leave from her job as manager of Asda's Harrogate store. "You cope because you enjoy the work, but when you come away, you think: `I probably wasn't actually performing and delivering the quality of work I could do if I wasn't so tired'. It's very fast-moving, with quite a lot of pressure, and you're on your feet all day. People would look at me and say: `You've got three children and you do this - you must be mad'," she says.
Just 10 of Asda's 220 current store managers are women, a proportion which hardly credits the capabilities of the chain's 77 per cent female workforce. "We were asking why we weren't getting more women into it; we recruited people from outside, but the numbers within the company were staying static," says Mrs De Fraja, who studied for a philosophy degree at Oxford, joined Gateway stores as a graduate trainee, and moved to Asda six years ago. "If you spoke to any senior managers, they would say: `We want more women in management', but they failed to grasp the jump from part-time to full-time supervisor at 38 hours a week, to manager at 45 hours a week. A lot of people just rule themselves out. They can't even begin to do it."
She adds: "I have friends whose husbands have equally demanding jobs and they wanted to go part-time and stay at home, but were quite disgruntled at having to step down from the levels of responsibility they had. That's the thing - how do you retain that status?"
Jobsharing seemed an obvious
answer, but there were several possible drawbacks. For a start, jobshare partners need to be able to co-operate.
"Gary and I both said: `No, we don't think this is going to work' at first. But we looked at each other's profiles, and we have got some differences, but similarities too. The main thing was: what was the impact going to be on the people in the store? What happens if you have one idea and the other manager comes in and changes it? We decided that whoever was in makes the decisions, and it stays between the two of us."
The benefits, she found, seemed to clinch the case. "I discovered jobsharing was frequently used in the public sector. You get people with a lot more energy and creativity and a more sustained management view. You don't have that `end of the week' thing. You're firing on all cylinders, which is especially good in an environment where it really is about being innovative and creative and keeping on the front foot with customers. There are also obvious benefits for people coming up for retirement, or if people want to do some study, or for those who have other demands, such as elderly parents."
Asda's management is eager to promote the idea. Chief executive Allan Leighton says he wants "to ensure that the promotional ladder is available to all ... irrespective of family life commitments. Traditional working hours are a thing of the past." Boots the Chemist was a pioneer, introducing a jobshare scheme in 1989, and other retailers may follow suit. Safeway has two new mothers sharing a job as babywear buyers, for example.
Pam Walton, spokeswoman for the research company New Ways to Work, says companies are beginning to see the sense in allowing top managers to work part-time. She cites the example of two women who manage three NHS trusts between them, and another successful jobshare at hospital directorate level. "It's a useful model at the more senior levels because they are the sort of jobs which need cover, and two people can share that." But companies need to prepare, and to encourage those who will take on the jobshare to "own" the process themselves. "They must be able to communicate and not be competitive. It can be difficult feeling you are not indispensable."
Mrs De Fraja, who will spend some of her newly released time working on jobshare development throughout the company, hopes for a trickle-down effect. "If we can make it work at store manager level, part of my brief will be to move it into department manager and supervisor level, so people feel they have a part-time career in management."