How these senior civil servants make job sharing work

Liz Davidson and Ian Shepherd have a key role at the Department for International Trade.

Last Updated: 05 Mar 2017

Photography by Julian Dodd

Part of a series of articles on job sharing 

Position: Deputy director (Americas), Trade Policy Group, Department for International Trade

Job-share: Three days a week each, crossover day: Wednesday 

Who says job-sharers should stick to quiet, low-stakes activities? Not these two. Senior civil servants Liz Davidson and Ian Shepherd head up a rapidly growing team (currently five, and rising) at the Department for International Trade, developing new trading relationships with countries across the Americas region.

In Brexit Britain there’s a lot riding on it, but says Davidson, job-sharing is actually better suited to many top posts than regular part-time hours – especially those roles which have to work around the diaries of ministers and visitors from overseas governments. 'Even in the Civil Service which is good on flexible working, if you can only work three days a week you are confining yourself. You certainly couldn’t do anything like this current job.

‘More senior jobs require higher energy input, and I can give more energy per day as a job-share than if I was trying to artificially fit the job into fewer days,’ says Shepherd.

The pair started job-sharing when they worked at the Home Office, before moving to the DIT last autumn. ‘We knew each other, we were friends through work,’ says Davidson. ‘I had in mind one or two people that I thought I could job-share with. Ian was very much my first choice.’

Being a mixed gender pairing sends a positive message, she says. ’We’ve had a few guys saying that they hadn’t considered a big role because of the hours, but that now they’ve seen us they are thinking about it. That unlocks talent and you get better people.’

What are the most important qualities in a job-share partner? ‘Compatible attitudes to the job, management and so on,’ says Shepherd. ‘We tested it out. What would we do, for example, if Liz did an amazing piece of work on Thursday and I got the praise for it on Monday – or if I mess things up and she gets the blame? There’s only one way you can handle that, it’s always got to be "we".’

‘It also really helps if you are on par in terms of performance – if there is an imbalance, you are going to run into problems,’ says Davidson.

Because their job is so fast moving, the pair operate on a pure job-sharing basis, each doing every task rather than trying to split according to expertise or preference. This makes the handover process absolutely critical if the baton is not to be dropped.

They have a shared email inbox and their handover document, diligently updated on an ongoing basis, runs to several pages. Handovers occur not only on Wednesdays in working hours but also by phone on Sundays. The one meeting they try to do together is their weekly update with the boss. ‘We think it is really important for us both to have that relationship, and to hear 100% of that conversation,’ says Shepherd.

The only exception to the ‘share everything’ rule is meetings with important overseas visitors who expect to see the same person every time, whatever the day of the week. ‘Many of them are not familiar with job-sharing, and we only meet them infrequently – maybe every six months. For those visits we are endeavouring to specialise,’ says Davidson.

They are both eloquent advocates for job-sharing, and want to see it become the ‘next phase’ of flexible working – it doesn’t have to be about childcare, says Shepherd, ‘I do it because I want to, I think it makes me happier and better at my job.’

So what does he do with his extra free time? ‘Volunteering, studying psychology and learning French. And some of it I spend just watching the telly.’

Next up: hear from Age UK's two heads of external affairs.


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