Reimagining the Foreign Service
Governance Matters speaks with Barbara Gonzenbach and Nikolas Stürchler Gonzenbach, a husband-and-wife team who share the role of Deputy Head of Mission at the Swiss Embassy in Singapore.
Governance Matters: What is the job-sharing scheme at the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) of the Government of Switzerland? What were the goals and considerations behind implementing the job-sharing scheme?
Barbara Gonzenbach and Nikolas Stürchler Gonzenbach: The job-sharing scheme allows couples working for the FDFA (what we call “transferable couples”, i.e. both partners are either diplomats, consular affairs officers, or Swiss development cooperation officers) to share a position at headquarters or abroad. They can apply for a position together and, if selected, they may divide or share the responsibilities and office presence to meet the requirements of the job. As of March 2022, out of about 1,190 full-time transferable personnel, the Swiss FDFA has 16 job-sharing couples.
The practice of job-sharing at the Ministry was born out of practical reasons: there were couples among the officers who wanted to be posted to the same destination. However, most Swiss representations abroad were not large enough to have two full-time positions available during a given rotation. In the vast majority of cases, there was only one opening. In 1998, the Ministry launched a pilot. It allowed a couple to job-share at the Swiss Embassy in Dublin, Ireland. The pilot was successful and subsequently more couples were allowed to apply together for one position.
To put it in other words: the practical advantage of a job-sharing scheme within a foreign ministry with job rotations relates to talent attraction and retention. Sending members of the same family to different destinations is in most cases no longer a viable option. At the same time, the promotion of equal opportunities at all levels is a central aspiration of the FDFA. The FDFA also promotes dual careers by supporting those accompanying their partner in their employment. With the possibility of job sharing and dual career promotion, the FDFA is positioning itself as a modern employer, enabling its staff to achieve a better balance between career and personal life. Last but not least, job-sharing enables the FDFA to gain a team of workers who can bring a more diverse set of skills and greater know-how than a single person ever can.
Job-sharers like us feel privileged, because we can both keep our jobs, lean in, and still have a healthy work-life balance. This is a definite win-win from the perspective of both the employer and employee, and an important evolution in modern day talent retention and management. - Barbara Gonzenbach and Nikolas Stürchler Gonzenbach
The first instance of job sharing between a diplomatic couple in the FDFA was in Dublin in 1998. How has the job-sharing scheme evolved since then?
Indeed, in 1998, the Ministry sent a couple to Dublin as Deputy Heads of Mission. Since then, we have had job-sharing at different levels at headquarters and abroad. At the ambassadorial level, the first job-sharing took place in Bangkok, Thailand in 2009. The woman ambassador was accredited to Thailand, and her husband was accredited to Laos and Cambodia, with both residing in Bangkok. Over the years, couples were allowed to apply individually for the benefits of a 60% role, in recognition of a slightly increased need for coordination but also the observation that part-time employees regularly work more than on paper. Other than that, nothing much has changed as the scheme works well.
What were some of the initial challenges behind the implementation of the job-sharing scheme in the FDFA? What were some personal challenges you faced initially during job-sharing? How were these overcome?
The rotation and transfer of staff within a foreign ministry is a complex puzzle. Our Ministry intends to place all staff in a way that optimally serves the Foreign Ministry’s interests. At the same time, it puts a lot of effort into keeping employees happy and motivated. Initially, not every ambassador was willing to consider employing a couple for the same position. With good examples in place and happy ambassadors telling colleagues that one could get two employees for one position, the scheme has become more popular. Of course from a human resources perspective, there are also administrative questions that had to be resolved, such as salaries, pension funds, allowances, office space etc.
At a personal level, as a couple, a natural challenge is that whenever we approach an upcoming rotation, we first have to agree on the positions we internally apply for. We always find a consensus, but it involves an in-depth discussion every time. Having children at a schooling age brings about an additional level of complexity to these deliberations. In some interviews for postings, we did in the past get critical questions about our arrangement, but we were never declined because of it.
Once we arrive at a new position, we have to do a thorough analysis to establish what sort of arrangement (usually a split of tasks) works best for all involved and fits our competences. Clarity in terms of the division of labour and the question of presence (who is working when) is vital, even more so in leadership positions. It usually takes a few weeks for a team to get accustomed to the new arrangement, but we do get very positive feedback. Also, a strong team mentality and flexibility are very important. For the management of a team, a common approach is key, too.
How does the FDFA and the Swiss Embassy adapt to assimilate job-sharing into its existing structure, systems, and processes? How are duties and team management responsibilities divided up between shared jobs?
The FDFA has established the option of job-sharing for most positions. It is also possible for people who are not a couple to apply for a position together. Our Ministry plans ahead quite a bit. Roughly 18 months before a transferable employee is due for rotation, there is a window of time to apply for a shortening or an extension of the current posting. This is also the time you would tell human resources whether, as a couple, you wish to do job-sharing again in the next position. A year before your transfer is up, you can then apply individually or on a job-sharing basis for your next position. Interviews are conducted together and, for higher positions, both will have to do an external leadership assessment to become eligible as job-sharing ambassadors.
At the new workplace, there are concrete steps such as organising two desks instead of one. The allocation of thematic responsibilities and working hours are decided in agreement with the direct supervisor. While one of us covers business relations, science, and legal affairs, the other focuses on finance, communications, security, and culture. For job-sharing couples in senior positions, as is the case in our situation, where we share leadership responsibilities as the Deputy Head of Mission, we would distribute the responsibilities over managing our staff according to the themes. We would perform some of the managerial tasks together. We feel that having a sparring partner helps us to find smart and sustainable solutions. We attend management meetings together. We also have a weekly schedule that allows both of us to work in the morning and in the afternoon, so that each of us can be in touch with headquarters due to the time difference with our home country, and still spend time with the children at home. We both go to the office every day, so our staff do not have to wait for inputs and direction.
Our Ministry clearly sees the positive points: it gets highly motivated job-sharers who can draw from a rich pool of combined experience and expertise, take well-deliberated decisions, and, on top of that, offer additional surge capacity in times of high demand or crisis. - Barbara Gonzenbach and Nikolas Stürchler Gonzenbach
What are some practical steps that diplomatic services in other countries can take when looking to implement their own job-sharing schemes?
From our point of view, we can only encourage every Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) to do the mathematics: how many couples or halves of couples have been lost because they cannot transfer together and how many couples could have been retained by introducing such a scheme? Interested MFAs should get in touch with MFAs like ours that already allow and implement job-sharing. A pilot project can be introduced to see whether such a scheme brings benefits to the organisation.
Our Ministry clearly sees the positive points: it gets highly motivated job-sharers who can draw from a rich pool of combined experience and expertise, take well-deliberated decisions, and, on top of that, offer additional surge capacity in times of high demand or crisis. At the same time, job-sharers like us feel privileged, because we can both keep our jobs, lean in, and still have a healthy work-life balance. This is a definite win-win from the perspective of both the employer and employee, and an important evolution in modern day talent retention and management.
Nikolas Stürchler Gonzenbach and Barbara Gonzenbach have been Deputy Heads of Mission at the Embassy of Switzerland in Singapore since 2018. Between 2010 and 2014 they shared the role of head of the legal team at the Permanent Mission of Switzerland to the UN in New York. They met while they were both doing their diplomatic training in Switzerland and married two years later. They have two children, Leonie, 10, and Julian, 12.
Prior to their Singapore posting, Nikolas Stürchler Gonzenbach was head of the humanitarian law and international criminal justice team at the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs. He holds a Doctorate and is the author of “The Threat of Force in International Law” (Cambridge University Press, 2007).
Barbara Gonzenbach has served as the head of the South Asia team at the FDFA’s headquarters in Bern, and as head of the human resources team for transferable personnel. She holds Master’s degrees in International Affairs from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva and in gender and international relations from Bristol University.