(By Amy Gallo)
“The key is to make sure it’s a seamless experience for everyone around you. “All those who interact with you should experience a unity of understanding and purpose,” says Friedman. And any time you talk about the arrangement, focus on how it benefits the organisation. “The main thrust of communications with co-workers and clients should focus on the benefits to others, especially the ‘two heads are better than one’ argument,” says Friedman. “Others want to know how this set-up will be good for them, not for you.”
Job sharing — splitting a full-time position into two part-time jobs — is an increasingly popular flexible work arrangement. But is it really possible to share a job with another person? How can you make what looks good on paper work in reality?
What the Experts Say
“There are a wide variety of reasons to choose a job sharing arrangement — it might be to take care of a dependent, to work another job, or to advance one’s education,” says Stew Friedman, a professor of management at the Wharton School and author of Total Leadership: Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life. Lotte Bailyn, a professor of management at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and author of Breaking the Mold: Redesigning Work for Productive and Satisfying Lives, agrees, noting that people often pursue a job share because they want less stress in their lives. Whatever your reason, it’s up to you (and your partner) to make the situation work. Joan Williams, a law professor and the founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, believes that any job can be shared if done intelligently and thoughtfully. Here’s how:
Choose the right partner
If you have a say in the matter, be sure to select someone with whom you can easily communicate, collaborate, and disagree. These arrangements often require difficult conversations about prioritizing work, office politics, and personal matters so you want to be sure you pick someone compatible. But don’t seek out your perfect clone either. These situations work best for you — and for the company — says Bailyn, if the job sharers have complementary skills, experience, and perspectives.
Decide how to divide up the work
“There are a number of ways to slice any given job,” says Williams. “It’s important to conceptualize all different parts and divide them up in the most effective way.” Some people split the work by each taking responsibility for certain tasks. This is called the “islands model” or a “job split.” Others share the same workload and simply divide up the days (usually with a bit of overlap). This is called the “twins model” and is often the simpler of the two. The model you choose will depend on the nature of the job and what preferences and skills each of you bring to it.
Communicate, communicate, communicate
“For job-sharing to work well, both parties must zealously convey and seek information from the other,” says Friedman. “Think ‘mind meld.’” Ideally this communication should happen face-to-face, says Bailyn, but many job sharers use other ways to connect, including email, phone, and Skype. Use this time to agree on work priorities, discuss any issues that have come up, pass off work if necessary, and check in about how things are going generally. “You can’t leave anything unspoken. It has to be very explicit,” says Williams.
Secure your supervisor’s support
If you proposed the arrangement, make sure your boss is onboard. “It’s possible to be successful in an organization that doesn’t generally support job sharing but not if your manager is against it,” says Williams. “If your supervisor doesn’t support it, it’s probably not going to work.” Ask your boss for feedback regularly. Be vigilant about communicating with her about the arrangement. When Friedman was a senior executive at Ford Motor Company, a pair of his direct reports shared a job. “What made it work so well was their willingness to go the extra mile to keep me and others informed about how they were coordinating their work; this gave all those involved a sense of confidence and trust that this was a good deal not just for the job-sharers but for our company,” he says.
Manage expectations and perceptions
Indeed, it’s not only your boss who needs to be informed. Anyone you work with—colleagues, clients, vendors—needs to know how to reach each of you and who they can expect to respond when. Some job sharers will share an email account and phone number. Others automatically cc their other half when responding to any email. The key is to make sure it’s a seamless experience for everyone around you. “All those who interact with you should experience a unity of understanding and purpose,” says Friedman. And any time you talk about the arrangement, focus on how it benefits the organization. “The main thrust of communications with co-workers and clients should focus on the benefits to others, especially the ‘two heads are better than one’ argument,” says Friedman. “Others want to know how this set-up will be good for them, not for you.”
Battle the bias
Bailyn says that one of the biggest barriers to making these situations successful is the attitude of others. In fact, some people perceive any flexible arrangement as a sign that you aren’t committed. Williams has observed this stigma in her research at the Center for WorkLife Law. “In most organizations this is seen as an ‘odd duck’ arrangement,” she says. The best way to challenge this bias is to excel at the work. “Make it very clear that you’re meeting the norms the organization has for people who are dedicated to the job,” says Williams.
Give it time
Once you’ve settled on an arrangement that you, your partner, and your boss think will work, try it out. Set a pilot period and experiment with how you split the work and communicate. Then tweak as necessary. “It’s good to give the process a bit of time to work out the kinks and get people used to it. After some experience, most people react positively,” says Bailyn. No matter how long you’ve been sharing a job, it’s a good idea to continually reassess and make adjustments based on what’s working for each of you, your boss, and the organization.
Principles to Remember
When selecting a partner, choose someone you can easily communicate, collaborate, and disagree with
Ask your boss for feedback regularly — be vigilant about communicating with her about the arrangement
Make sure it’s a seamless experience for your co-workers and anyone outside your organization
Leave anything unspoken — talk to your partner regularly
Assume everyone will be fine with the arrangement — combat bias by excelling at your shared work
Set the details in stone — it’s better to experiment and make adjustments as necessary
Case study #1: Experiment with the arrangement to find what works
Gretchen Anderson had been working as a consultant to the Katzenbach Center at Booz & Company for a few months when the opportunity to take on the role of center director came up. Gretchen knew one of the center’s leaders, Jon Katzenbach — she’d worked at a firm he’d previously founded— and was excited about the opportunity to work with him again. But she was a new mother, and only wanted to work 50% time. Fortunately, another consultant who had been with the firm for almost eight years, Carolin Oelschlegel, was also interested in the position. She was based in London and had recently started working 80% time for lifestyle reasons — “there are so many things I wanted to do outside of work and I wanted the time to do them,” she says.
Gretchen and Carolin spoke once by phone and each had a strong sense that they would work well with the other so agreed to put their collective hat in the ring (each dedicating 50% to the role). Such job-share arrangements are not common at Booz & Company, but the leaders at the Katzenbach Center were eager to make it happen.
Initially, they thought they could split the work by region: Gretchen could cover North America and Carolin would take Europe. But they soon realized that this division felt artificial and ineffective. Next, they tried working on the same projects, passing them back and forth, but that didn’t feel efficient either. Eventually, they decided to carve out two buckets of work: immediate requests from client teams, which required a response within 24-48 hours, and longer term projects.
Immediate requests are now resolved by whoever is available and online at the time. For the longer-term projects, they collectively designate a lead who can bounce the work back to her partner as necessary, relying on the other’s feedback and re-allocating when demands shift or projects end. They manage this hybrid between the “twins” and “islands” model by staying in constant contact: “We’re in touch by email every day, even on Gretchen’s off days and we always know where the other is,” says Carolin.
While they were initially diligent about keeping those around them apprised of how they divided the work, their bosses and co-workers now trust them to sort it out. “How we divide our work is neither of interest nor of concern,” says Gretchen. “They seem to trust that things will happen — and to let us sort it out on our own.”
There have been unexpected benefits to sharing the job as well. For example, since their time is limited, they both push each other to focus on the most important priorities. “We have two peoples’ judgment call on what really needs to get done,” Gretchen says.
Case study #2: Put respect first
Several years back, Ryan Frischmann decided he wanted to get into software development so he applied for a job as a lead developer at a small start-up in Rochester. During his interview, he learned that the role would be shared with a current employee who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. The idea was that they would do the same job until his co-worker got too sick to work or passed away.
Ryan recognized that this was a unique situation but he was willing to give it a try. “I thought it would be a great learning experience personally and professionally,” he says. The arrangement allowed his colleague the flexibility he needed to continue working and gave Ryan the opportunity to learn from a more experienced colleague.
The two men shared the same role and responsibilities — Ryan worked full time at the office while his colleague worked from home when he was able to.
Ryan believes that the most important element in making their relationship work was respect. “I made sure he made the final decision on anything new in the development pipeline,” he says. “My colleague had built the software from scratch. He felt it was an accomplishment and so did I.” Ryan also worked to gain his co-worker’s trust. “I had to demonstrate to him that I understood his coding and methods. When he was sicker, he told me and the others that he was leaving his software in capable hands. This meant a lot to me.”
The job share lasted for nine months before Ryan’s co-worker died, and Ryan has carried on in the role. He says the experience has inspired him. “My partner had a lot of pride in his work and completed some of his best work when he was very sick. I never anticipated the effect it would have on me personally.”
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