“Job sharing in a senior position means we can role model good flexibility”

Rachel Currie and Wendy Aslett explain how they’ve helped transform approaches to flexible working at the BBC, and reaped the benefits themselves

“Job sharing in a senior position means we can role model good flexibility”

The BBC is only as good as the value we deliver to our audiences. Our key challenge is to grow that value – and we will do that by creating an inclusive, diverse, inspiring and trusted environment so that we attract and retain the finest talent.

The BBC needs to be a creative, buzzing, modern organisation. Supporting all our employees to work in the best way to make the best content for our audiences is central to our core purpose. We compete for talent in a tough market, which often offers highly competitive compensation that we can’t always match. We know that many of our employees lead busy lives with commitments and interests beyond the BBC. For many, working for an organisation with a public value purpose and the ability to manage their working lives alongside other commitments is as important as their pay. 

Before 2018, as you would expect of a well-run public service organisation, we had a textbook flexible working policy and good HR processes to support it. But the culture did nothing to bring that policy to life. Large parts of the organisation had a culture of presenteeism: team leaders didn’t talk about flexible working and couldn’t imagine a world where their full team wasn’t around them and visible at all times. Our policy and process put the whole onus on the individual, almost daring them to step forward and make the request to work flexibly – a request that was often met with resistance or resigned acceptance. And employees were left to think they’d won a huge prize in being ‘allowed’ to work flexibly, and then almost immediately felt they had to work doubly hard to prove themselves, or that their career prospects were inevitably going to be affected by their decision.

So, in 2018, as part of our award-winning culture and career progression work, we set out to transform our approach to flexible working. We started from the position that every job could be done flexibly– unless we could articulate business-critical reasons that it was impractical. We rewrote our flexible working policy; we set a target of 100 per cent of our roles to be advertised as ‘open to flex’ and introduced a job share register, mentoring for women returners, a suite of training and briefing tools for our team leaders, and an internal communications approach – #FreshLookatFlex – which showcased case studies of employees across the BBC working flexibly and the team leaders supporting them.

We’ve made great progress. An average of 90 per cent of all jobs are now advertised as open to flex. We have 15 per cent of our workforce on formal part-time contracts and many more informal flexible working arrangements across every part of the BBC. In our most recent employee engagement survey in 2020, 71 per cent of employees said they were supported to work flexibly (up from 41 per cent in 2017). 

A clear signal to us that the BBC really meant what it said about flexible working was when we applied for, and were appointed to, the role of group HR director as a job share in November 2019. We are the broadcaster’s most senior job share, and feel really proud both to lead the brilliant HR team at the BBC and to be able to role model flexible working at a senior level across the organisation.

Both of us are working mothers and neither of us had worked in a job share arrangement before. It’s been a fantastic experience so far and we have learned as we’ve gone along. It hasn’t turned out at all as we planned – three months into the job, we found ourselves based at home (one in Glasgow, one in Reading) and helping to lead the organisation’s response to the pandemic, supporting the majority of our 22,000 staff moving to work from home while transforming our buildings into safe spaces for our broadcast-critical staff to continue to come into work to deliver vital content to audiences. 

We haven’t physically been together for more than a year but we’re making it work. On a practical level it’s straightforward. We both work three days a week, with crossover day on a Wednesday. We have a joint email address and inbox. We do detailed handovers to each other on Wednesdays and Sundays. Broadly we both work across the full remit of the job and aim to be interchangeable on all the work. But we split the line management of our direct reports, so that each individual has one main line manager for development and routine conversations, and we play to our strengths – each taking the lead on key pieces of work or topics.

What have we learned? This role has a massive brief and the success of the job share is based on constant communication, complete trust in each other and backing the decisions we each make. 

It’s not – and we’re not – perfect. Sometimes people want both of us, not one of us, and our Wednesdays are usually a frantic day of back-to-back meetings with others, either jointly or separate, and it’s hard to carve out the time we need together to plan and focus on our future priorities. We occasionally reply to the same email, or miss one. And while it’s great for the two of us each to work three long intense days each week and then ease up, our teams are often working five days with us and have no respite from the energy and pace we each bring to our days.

But the benefits are huge. For us, we have someone to talk through the big decisions, bounce ideas off and share the responsibility and load of what is often a pressurised job. And we have all the rewards of doing a stimulating, challenging role in an organisation we both love, with the balance of time to focus on the other important parts of our lives. And we think there are clear benefits for the organisation – complementary and combined strengths and skills, two individuals bringing their all to one role, and the powerful signal that a senior job share can give to the talented and diverse employees we are trying to attract: that the BBC is a place where they can flourish and work in a way best suited to their needs.

And we’re now moving towards a new post-Covid world and working out what that means for us after a year in which most people have worked remotely, if not flexibly. Like most organisations, we’re figuring out our new ways of working. We expect the majority of our employees will retain some form of agile working, and we will transform our buildings into collaborative spaces where people still come together to do their most creative work, but not to work side by side at their desks in the traditional 9 to 5, Monday to Friday working pattern.

The BBC is a creative, social organisation that thrives on teams being together, so we are looking forward to bringing people back into their bases more regularly. But we will remain an organisation that has transformed its approach to flexible working and, in a world where the best talent expects to work differently, and where we have proven that it can work, we have a great opportunity to build on that approach. Our future success depends on it.

Wendy Aslett and Rachel Currie are group HR directors at the BBC and work on a job share arrangement. They are speaking at the CIPD’s Scotland Conference on Tuesday 30 March – find out more and book your tickets on the CIPD’s events website