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When two become one: How to make a job share work

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two pieces of a job share

The idea of job sharing, or splitting one role between two part-time employees, has gradually been gaining credibility. It allows parents and carers the flexibility to continue their careers and gives companies a cost-neutral way of retaining and attracting talent that doesn’t want to sign up to the traditional 9-5 grind.

Carving out a more rewarding life-balance is something many top business minds are starting to focus on. And it’s not just for the sake of caring for young children, but also for learning, creativity and the pursuit of hobbies. Despite the obvious benefits to both businesses and individuals, however, job sharing is still seen as the exception rather than the rule in most industries.

Bucking the trend

I recently spoke with Sue Harker and Emma Jeffs who have demonstrated just how successful a job share can be, and did so in a leading-blue chip company that hadn’t previously shown much appetite for the concept.

Emma was due to return to work after the birth of her second child, but didn’t want to return full time. Sue had twice provided cover for Emma’s PR role and was keen to continue in the role as a complement to her other freelance work.

Together they decided that a job share would be perfect, and so set about figuring out how to best make it work for both them and their employer and just what practicalities were involved in two people inhabiting one role.

Putting the work before the worker

The ‘96 Spice Girls hit, 2 Become 1, may not have been a musical triumph, but its title does rather neatly encapsulate what Emma and Sue both agree was the core of what made their job share work: the ability to put the work ahead of any precious feelings of personal ownership or advancement.

We were interchangeable,’ says Emma; to the outside world there was simply one, highly effective, seamless PR contact that just got the job done.

‘We would often get emails addressed to each other. People couldn’t differentiate between us,’ says Sue. ‘It was like they were talking to one person, and that’s when we knew we were on the right track.’

Picking your perfect partner

Finding the right person to job share with isn’t easy. On the one hand you need someone who thinks similarly to you and has a similar attitude and work ethic, but on the other they need to be able to bring something additional to the role and complement your existing skill set. ‘You need two people who are equal but different,’ says Emma.

You also have to respect and trust how your other half works. If you don’t you’ll always be worrying on your days off, ‘the job share won’t work and you’ll be miserable,’ says Sue.

It takes some getting used to, and of course initially both women would occasionally review each other’s work just for a ‘sanity check’, but as Sue explains, when you have that trust it’s amazing how quickly that urge goes.

Learning to let go

Both women also emphasised the need for maturity and humility in anyone looking to undertake a job share. You have to accept that any feedback from colleagues or clients applies equally to both of you.

That trust extends beyond relinquishing personal ownership of projects, and means accepting that on the occasions the other person takes a decision you wouldn’t have made, it’s not wrong, it’s simply different. As long as the outcome is the same: a happy stakeholder, the ego behind the work shouldn’t matter.

One valuable lesson they quickly learned was that if there was ever any friction it had to be addressed before it had a chance to fester. ‘We set ground rules, just between us,’ explains Emma, ‘and I said if anything I do irritates you, you have to tell me immediately, and the same the other way around.’

The practicalities of a perfect partnership

‘It’s like a marriage, you have to address things straight away and be entirely open and honest,’ says Sue. This explains why the most important technical tools Emma and Sue used to make their job share work were focused on one thing: communication.

They gave each other access to their inboxes, which was simpler than setting up a shared inbox, and had a Word document that was updated daily and served as a handover memo with red flag issues and updates on all campaigns and projects. And that was it, ‘just normal office software used effectively,’ says Sue.

All the other tools they used were pre-existing documents and processes of the PR department, that anyone can tap into at any stage.

Crucially, that detailed level of communication also meant that they could fully respect each other’s time off. There were only one or two occasions in the year when one had to contact the other about a pressing issue, but on the whole, ‘whoever was on duty, it was their decision to make,’ says Sue.

No one cares about you in a job share

Of course, while these were important lessons from Emma and Sue’s perspective, when it came to convincing the boss, they knew they had to build a serious business case that ensured minimal business impact and maximum return. ‘We created a job description of how it would work and focused on the benefits,’ explains Sue.

Quite rightly, the women focused on that fact that the business would be getting around 35 years of combined PR experience without spending any more money. It’s important to remind the employer that in any job share they’re ‘getting two minds for the price of one,’ says Sue.

The main priority for the company in agreeing to the job share was that there be no impact for the stakeholders so ‘we worked through all the touch points’ to ensure that communication would be seamless and if ‘one of us was asked a question, either of us could answer it,’ says Emma.

Getting to know you

Luckily for Emma and Sue, clients and colleagues alike already knew and trusted both of them, but, as Sue explains, if you were to bring in someone new to start a job share you would need a couple of weeks, or a month, if possible with both of you working full time to get everyone acquainted and comfortable; ‘we made ourselves very visible beforehand’.

Some education had to go on internally,’ says Emma, and they had brief but detailed out-of-office replies so that people could understand the new setup, and thankfully the PR agency was very supportive and understood how it was working.

Ultimately, once everyone knew the practical implications, and realised the work was still getting done, and done well, the whole thing ran extremely smoothly. The only reason the setup didn’t continue was due to a wider reorganisation and downsizing within the company.

‘If other people came to the company again asking to job share, looking back, the experience would be seen as positive,’ says Emma.

The way forward

And it wasn’t just a success for the business. Both women felt it was a rewarding and extremely successful experience for them personally and are keen to do it again. ‘I think it’s the way forward,’ says Sue.

These women have proven that job sharing can work in a high-performing, time-sensitive company, and that it’s ideal for both parents returning to work and those seeking to explore other pursuits. ‘The opportunity is a fantastic thing and more people should be encouraged to give it as an option,’ says Emma. ‘It’s not promoted, and it should be.’