Virgin Media O2 Leaders Share Their Secrets to Successful Job-Sharing

Virgin Media O2 Leaders Share Their Secrets to Successful Job-Sharing

Keywords: job share, flexibile working, part time,  senior-level positions, work-life balance, communication, productivity, teamwork, career success, Virgin Media O2.
Industry: telecommunications

Meet Sarah O'Connor and Annella Osborne, they job share the Head of Go to Market at Virgin Media O2. With different career backgrounds, they bring unique experiences and perspectives to the decision-making process, resulting in increased efficiency. They share their strategies for effective communication, prioritizing tasks, and creating light touch handover documents. Tune in to discover how their job-sharing partnership has proven to be an effective approach for senior-level positions.

In this podcast episode of Talk Roleshare we cover the following:

+ Annella Osborne and Sarah O'Connor are Heads of Go to Market (GTM) at Virgin Media O2, responsible for launches within the connectivity side.

+ Job sharing can benefit senior roles due to both individuals bringing different backgrounds and experiences to the decision making process, increasing efficiency in decision making.

+ Sarah and Annella are motivated by similar factors but come from different career backgrounds – Sarah from advertising and Annella from telecommunications.

+ Sarah O'Connor & Annella Osborne successfully implemented the first senior-level job share in their organization, which proved the case that job sharing can be effective and beneficial.

+ Job sharing has enabled them to balance work and family life while still achieving success at their job. 

+ There is a focus on a common goal, creating an environment of support and trust with no ulterior motive. 

+ They communicate via Teams with open dialogue and also weekly catch ups at the start of each week and on Wednesdays as their crossover day when they are both in the office face-to-face. 

+ Annella and Sarah use classic Word documents or emails for handover.

+ Initially, these documents were detailed because they were getting to know the projects as a job share, but now they are kept succinct, focusing on important details.

+ They communicate regularly to convey tone and body language that cannot be expressed through emailed notes.


Sophie Smallwood: People oftentimes think of job sharing as a good solution for more junior or more project case work.

Annella Osborne: Yeah, definitely can trump that myth.

And I actually, it will work well at multiple levels, but I think there are specific things that work particularly well at a senior level. Sarah and I, share a role, are Heads of Go To Market at Virgin Media O2. So effectively we are responsible for any launches within the connectivity side, so anything to do with UK broadband, etc. Making sure that those things launch well and coming up with kind of new innovative ways to bring things to market that make us stand out. That improve performance in a market that is becoming more and more generic between what different providers can provide.

So actually the way that you take things to market are really important. But yeah, for me, at the level we are at, the best thing for us about job share, and certainly what I think Virgin Media O2 think about it, is most of our work now is problem solving. It's not necessarily the doing. We have a fantastic team that support us. So a lot of it is a little bit more strategic now and making decisions on what direction we should be taking as a whole.

And what's amazing for me about job share is Sarah and I have different backgrounds. So now we're hired based on experience. So how much experience we've collected over our careers help us to "right I've seen this problem before," or "I've come across this before" because we have that from different industries. What the company gets from us is all that experience from different areas. They get two careers worth of experience for each of the problems that we are having to solve.

So we bring that to the table when we're making decisions. And then just between us, you know anyone who works collaboratively with anyone, not just job share, but being able to talk to one another, and "actually, Sarah, do you think this is the right move" or "have you thought about this?" We challenge each other, so all of the decisions we make, they've effectively been ratified by at least one other person before they're even brought to the table.

So it helps us to almost cut time in that decision making because we can be confident in our decision, because two people at the same level of a similar expertise are both saying, "do you know what, this is the right thing to do." Yeah.

Sarah O'Connor: And I think for the business, at our level and life stage, you often see quite a lot of women in particular , not exclusively women, but often it is women if they're choosing to have children, taking a step back or taking a sideways role.

So I think for the business, it's giving that diversity of opinion, and as Annella says "experience at the table," which the companies found unexpectedly beneficial, I would say. So I definitely think it can work better if anything at a senior level because you've got that diversity of lived experience and opinion, but you've also got freshness across the week because the way we share is we do three days each with a crossover on a Wednesday. Whereas, an average person, however effective they are, will ebb and flow over the course of the week, for us we really bring, our best self to work on those three days, so they're really getting value from us the whole time that we're at work.

Sophie Smallwood: You've mentioned a lot of really interesting USPs of job sharing in this aspect of you're not in a silo, you're making these strategic decisions, bouncing the ideas off of somebody who thinks differently than you. This diversity of thought, the checks and balances that's involved with the job share, I think is a huge benefit for company as well. And this freshness across the week? Absolutely. You don't have that like Wednesday lull, just as you're maybe reaching that Wednesday lull, your partner comes in and carries the baton.

You mentioned Annella that you have complimentary backgrounds and that makes you stronger. Maybe you can both talk a little bit about your unique backgrounds and why you started job sharing?

Sarah O'Connor: Our motivation for doing it is similar. But our background is certainly different. So I actually started working in advertising. So I worked for a couple of different advertising agencies working on a range of different sectors and brands.

And then I took a gap year in my mid twenties with my now husband. When I came back I made the move from agency side to client side and worked always in telecoms and media actually but starting again in advertising and marketing.

Over time I've moved into a broader remit. So I've done marketing strategy, I've worked in commercial and now product.

Annella Osborne: Yeah, and then mine, I think mine's more boring than yours, Sarah, which is really sad.

I've been in telcos, I've been in broadband companies, client side the whole time. So I started out on a graduate scheme at BT and did different things there. Then moved over to EE, which is another mobile company. And then for EE to Virgin Media and with an in interim with BT again. So just a kind of roundabout of telco. So I've got three children, me and Sarah the same in that regard, but I've got a daughter and boy twins. When I came back from work after my daughter, I did say, would it be possible to work three days?

And the company at the time said, "no your role is too broad." They did say I could do four. But I wasn't sure. I had a lot of experience with, again, women mainly who'd done four, but it just seeps into five. And I thought, "God, do I really want to be doing five? But being paid for four" was sometimes the scenario. So I said, I'd like to do three and they'd said "no," and luckily, I just happened to be on a leadership course, so there was a leadership course that was about fast tracking people through the business. And basically the prize of completing this course was you got to do a presentation to the CEO.

So I got to go to speak to him and his board about anything I wanted for 10 minutes. I did a topic called the part-time problem and my basic premise was, roles are made part-time, but part-time roles are never really made because, they go over that limit, and he was just incredibly supportive and said, "work with our HR team, we'll figure something out."

And that's when I started to research about job share. So I set up one of the first job shares at a senior level. There was more at low levels, but the first senior level job share there. And so when I was looking at moving roles and I saw that Sarah had posted up that there was a job share in Virgin Media.

I already had experience of how that works and how brilliant it was. So jump ship from BT and moved over to Virgin.

Sophie Smallwood: Got it. So Sarah, you were on a full-time position and then you converted it to a job share, or how did that work?

Sarah O'Connor: So when I came back from mat leave after my eldest child, I asked to for flexible working and moved from five days to four days. And that worked okay, but as Annella said, there is always some seeping on y our days off or otherwise, evenings, etc. It gave me a day a week at home with my son, so made it work.

And then when I went back after my second child, that was when I asked for the move from four days into three days and they said, "no, it's not possible." But I also, pitched the option of the job share. That was the first senior-level job share in the organization, I was very lucky that my boss at the time was supportive because that opened the door basically to prove the case, that job sharing can work, and can work at a senior level. People around you definitely makes a big difference to being able to prove the fact that this type of working can work. And in many ways is more effective than more traditional ways of working.

Sophie Smallwood: I think we're a really interesting point now within the UK, in particular, with the new legislation and the new bill, that people can ask for flexibility from day one. As a company, it certainly is a win-win if you are more proactive about job sharing, because it gives you that coverage, the continuity, the diversity of thought. Hopefully now we'll see it become a lot more normalized.

Sarah O'Connor: And I think also Covid the fact that people's home and work lives have been merged more on, on camera for all to see whether that's having children or other caring responsibilities or, whatever it may be.

I think that's really helped probably accelerate the conversation because we've all been working in a kind of non-traditional way. It enabled people to question, actually "why have we been commuting to an office for five days a week for the last however many years?" So I think hopefully that's another reason why the conversations around flexible working are being accelerated.

Sophie Smallwood: So we've talked about your whys and you talked a little bit about some of the benefits of job sharing for the business, but can you share a couple of concrete examples of how the job share benefited the business in a way that perhaps wouldn't have been possible if it was just you alone in the role or you alone even on a part-time basis.

Annella Osborne: Oh, do you know what one of the things that we did when we came into Virgin Media, who have been just brilliant when it comes to this. When you come into a new role and you assess what you think needs to happen, and one of them was, "do you know what we want to put in a whole new system of the way that we administrate launches."

So we are a brilliantly creative company and sometimes we can air on the side of, do you know what, that process or that slight bureaucracy that you need to make things function needs to be ebbed up a little bit. So we came in and thought we could implement something that is business wide and needs to have things to go through to give it a little bit more process.

And what we really did for that was, "right we have a broad range of experience from other companies. We have very different careers. What worked well there, what worked well, what didn't work so well." And to have both Sarah and I bring our heads together exactly as we talked about right at the beginning, about that breadth of experience.

You have two lengths of careers. You have multiple companies that you've, done or seen similar things. You have multiple connections and networks that you can draw from to get other people's opinions and it, etc. So we put something in place that has been- it's so hard with these things to praise your own work - but it has been very well received and I think a part of that is because it is our own idea, but it's actually just a mishmash of hundreds of other people's ideas and other companies' ideas that are being brought together to deliver something successful. I certainly couldn't have brought something like that as a singular entity, just because I would've missed all of that thinking and all of that experience that Sarah had, that I don't have. It's not just the really big decisions that decisively you can say, "yeah, we launched that and that worked really well. And actually we are still using it as a business today." But the tiny day-to-day things and people management is another big one.

Like obviously it's hard to pull up specific examples in that arena, the grey area of understanding what is best for an individual or the next steps in that space. There's more emotional thinking that needs to happen there, the empathy and bouncing things around. And those decisions, I think as a job share, you are able to really explore, right? "How are they going to feel about this? And what do you think about that?" And also the other great thing is I can say in a meeting, "Sarah, how did that come across?" And she can do the same. When we are there together on a Wednesday, for instance, you can get that constant feedback loop because they are there with you. And the brilliant thing about job share, and it's the same with your peer network, but just not so extreme, like the support for one another is just unquestionable because we are certainly aiming for the same goal.

So you have nothing but the best interest of your counterpart in mind whenever you are having these discussions, which means you could be more frank because you don't have to second guess on what's their ulterior motive or do they really mean that. You are just fully supportive of the person you're working with, which is so nice. It's really good.

Sarah O'Connor: And when we first started one of the main questions that came up was "what are you going to do when there's a conflict?"

But actually, we found we're focused on the same goal, which is the job share to work, so that we get the two days a week with our families, there's actually very little conflict because your bigger ambition is for the overall thing to work and therefore, you are focused on that bigger picture.

And as Annella was saying, if one of us succeeds, both of us succeeds, so it doesn't matter. I might write the deck for a presentation in the first half of the week that Annella presents in the second half of the week, but it doesn't matter because it's not about me or about her. It's about, making the share work and us together. So if anything, I've found it the most supportive work environment I've ever been in, because you've got somebody there that's your champion and is interested in you both succeeding. So it's not about one or the other. It's about both of you.

Sophie Smallwood: Yeah. It's having this ultimate ally. No ulterior motive as you said. Nothing that would make you hesitant about sharing. And I think one thing that really struck me as you were speaking is this idea of the common denominator, right?

You have this common denominator, which is your individual missions and why you want the balance, right? And as a result, you really want to make this arrangement work because it gives you that flexibility with this really great job that you love in a creative institution.

Love to jump to a couple of the practical questions. These are sometimes for me, the boring bits of job sharing, but they are the very common things that people want to know. So the practicalities of a job share. How do you actually share a job week to week? People get a little bit confused, it's something new, it feels complicated to them. So would you spend a little bit of time explaining how the two of you actually share the work week?

Sarah O'Connor: Yeah, absolutely.

So we work, we said earlier we work three days each. So I work the first half of the week and Ella works the second half of the week and we have Wednesday as our crossover day. And that tends to be our main day in the office as well. Kind of face-to-face. Because we started this arrangement in lockdown, I think we'd only met twice before we started the share, having that face-to-face time is really important and we use that as our main handover day or if there is specific strategic projects that we want to work through, we'll try and use that Wednesday to put some decent time in to talk that through.

It's also when we have team meetings etc. I think communication is probably the key to it. So we'll have a catch up generally at the start of the week where Annella will fill me in on what's been happening. So the end of the previous week.

And then in between that there's just lots of, open communication back and forth. So we are precious about not working on our non-working days. But we'll often send a message to each other being like, "oh, I just wanted to check this, or I'm going to say, are you happy for me to do X?"

So it, it's just keeping those dialogues really open. And I think when we started the share, we tried to split projects. We tried to split the project we were working on and said I'd be the lead on some and Annella would be on the other. But what we found pretty quickly was it doesn't, it didn't work like that for us.

I'm sure in some organizations in some roles it could, but because things wouldn't neatly fit into a box, where the projects I was leading or the meetings would be in the first half of the week and vice versa. So now we share across the board and everything gets moved back and forth each week. Open dialogue and communication would be the key ways that we make it work.

Annella Osborne: Yeah, basically our rule is I don't pick up or talk to anyone at work except Sarah.

So even my boss, if he wants to ring me on a Monday or Tuesday or I was going to say the CEO, maybe I'd pick up the CEO if he really wanted to speak. But, but generally I only speak to Sarah. And I think the other thing to note about that is it's a different sort of relationship to just a colleague, like my WhatsApp’s with Sarah they are half, "look at that. Did you know I spoke to this person just checking, is this fine?" And then it's "oh, I can't believe that Erica didn't sleep last night." And so it's a different sort of relationship to a colleague always getting in contact with you on your days off.

It's a really funny relationship. Like I sometimes describe Sarah as a life partner, because it's work. It definitely is. But there is also that element of we do share the other side of our work, which is what we're having to do with our children and get them ready for book day and I need to do this and that.

It's about a relationship and supporting one another. The bigger picture, as Sarah was saying, that's what we're aiming for. We're aiming for a balanced life. That's what we're after, not just a balanced job.

Sophie Smallwood: People listening can't see, but I'm watching the two of you chat and I can see you're laughing. There seems to be, good fun too, which makes work obviously a lot more enjoyable. Let's get to the nitty gritty of the types of tools you use.

So you mentioned WhatsApp. Are there other tools that you use? Are you into asynchronous communication? Voice notes? Like how do you like to communicate?

Annella Osborne: It's so funny we had high hopes for loads of different sharing equipment or whether we could have a shared to-do list and things like that.

But really classic Word document or classic email handover, it actually works the best for us. So on a Wednesday or a Friday, depending on which of us is handing over, we will always have a document, whether it's an email, if it's more quick or whether it's a Word document if something needs to be more detailed.

But the outlines here is everything that you know, I'm handing over or what's happened. And the other thing I would say about that is when we started, like we just started our job share together, those documents had to be really detailed because we were getting to know the projects as a share. Sarah already had experience because she was already in roles. She was just coming back from maternity. But we were getting to know the projects as a share and we were getting to know the way each other communicated and what we needed to know and what that other person found important. So those beginning documents, if you see them, I think we experimented with kind of Excel and also like Word documents were quite lengthy and they really go through everything.

Whereas once it's up and running and the ball is rolling, in the sort of positions we're in, things do change week on week, but the overall strategy stays the same. Like it's rare that there is something, fundamentally, there occasionally is that needs that extra time, but you know what that shape of the week is going to look like.

So it's then just a continuous document. So I think that's the other thing that makes people, "oh my gosh, does it take you hours to talk about, every tiny thing that you've done?" But that's not the case. The handover document becomes very light touch. It focuses on those things that are really important.

And that's the other thing that someone said this to me the other day with prioritizing your work. Most people being their best self would love it if every week they looked at their list, they understand what is the priority, they understand what should be done first. Sarah and I do that every week just out of routine because that's what the other person needs.

I look at the long list in the handover and I say, do you know what, Sarah only really needs to focus on one, two, and three. So there's a bit of detail there, Sarah, but here's really what's happening. So over time it gets easier and we always have a catch up, like on the phone at both handover points wherever they sit. Because in the sort of business we're in, sometimes what's said in an email or said in a meeting, you also need to translate the tone, the body language, what you really think they were saying, like "they said yes, but their head was shaking as they said it." We do that usually as a call because it's easier than trying to describe it.

Sophie Smallwood: I was speaking with two women sharing a senior role at ASDA and they love voice notes. They do voice notes and email because they can convey a lot more through voice in some instances. We'll tap into your creative brains now. If you had to give your working arrangement a tagline, what would it be?

Annella Osborne: Do you know what I think life balance is that not creative enough? Sarah's more creative than I am. It's the balancing both because there are there as much trials at work as there are outside of work and I think that is the very uniqueness of a job share that it gives you support on both and getting that right.

So that's the world's longest tagline, but something like that.

Sophie Smallwood: Keeps you sane.

Sarah O'Connor: People don't always get the fact that you've done a day before you even sit down at your desk some days. So it's great having somebody that you don't have to explain that to.

They understand the journey that you've been on to sit down at your desk at the start of the day and the journey you'll have after you finish.

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