Job Swapping Makes a Comeback

Switching-Lives Program Helps U.K. Agency Iris Recruit and Retain Talent

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NEW YORK ( -- This past August, Luke Purser, a 25-year-old creative at the U.K. headquarters of ad-agency network Iris, packed up his belongings and headed to his employer's Big Apple outpost. At the same time, Julia Richards, a 29-year-old creative at Iris, New York, flew across the pond to Mr. Purser's native London.

The two served as the inaugural pair in a job-rotation program at Iris dubbed Life Swap. And when Iris says swap, it means it. Much like ABC's hit reality show in which wives trade lives for eight weeks, Mr. Purser and Ms. Richards exchanged existences -- doing everything from working at each other's desks to living in each other's apartments.

"It's their jobs, it's their houses, it's their teams, it's their friends -- it's crazy," said Helen Brown, global talent director for Iris. She helped conceive the program, which the agency hopes will be a successful recruitment and retention tool for Iris' global staff of nearly 500.

Launched in 1999 by Ian Millner and Stewart Shanley, Iris is an independent micronetwork. Key global clients include Coca-Cola, Sony Ericsson, Shell, ING and Adidas. In the U.S., the agency handles duties for Monster, Office Depot and MySpace, among others.

Iris already had a long-term rotation program in place for its most senior executives, but the idea for Life Swap came about as the company was searching for a way "to reward and help to promote younger high performers in the organization," said Ms. Brown.

Performance incentive
With the help of bosses, Life Swappers are hand-selected based on performance: A key requirement is living in your own apartment so accommodations can be swapped. Participants must also be single.

When approached about the opportunity to clock some time in Iris' New York office, Mr. Purser -- who joined Iris straight out of college and has worked at the shop for about three years -- jumped at the chance. "It was great to see the contrasts being in a smaller office," he said.

For Ms. Richards, who joined Iris less than two years ago after a stint at Y Partnership in Florida, the program couldn't have come about at a better time. "I was approaching a point in my career where I was kind of plateauing, and I wanted to jumpstart it by seeing how Iris, London, which is our home base, ran." Plus, she said, "design in Europe is quite different than the design style here, so it was a good chance to pick brains and expand my design skills."

Job rotation is not a new concept, but it is seeing a bit of a renaissance. There was a time when job-rotation programs were a mainstay of how people developed into managerial roles, said Brian Wilkerson, head of talent management at consultancy Watson Wyatt Worldwide. But in the 1970s, the practice became less popular. "Over the past four years, however, you've seen a bit of a shift back toward these programs ... the prevalence is increasing," said Mr. Wilkerson. "It used to be that it was primarily in manufacturing and more product-oriented companies, like a P&G or Toyota, but now it's really extending into more industries. ... Anyplace where there is a predominance of knowledge workers, you're seeing these programs crop up."

The costs are minimal -- an estimated £700 to £1,000 a head -- as it pays solely for airfare and local travel expenses to and from the agency. "It's a fantastic ROI for us," said Ms. Brown.

Matt McRoberts, managing director at Iris, New York, said Life Swap has "tangible business benefits." For example, Mr. Purser brought knowledge about Iris client Coty, the beauty-products maker, back home with him to assist in the increasing amount of work Iris is doing in Europe with the manufacturer.

Programs such as Life Swap are valuable for attracting promising talent just entering the work force, said Mr. Wilkerson. "There is ROI in terms of the ability to recruit the kind of people that you want. It's a significant factor in terms of people deciding to come to a company."
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