Two For The Price Of One

13th April 2012

Last September celebrated National Work Life Week and this month includes International Downshifting Week (Saturday 21 to Friday 27 April). On the face of it, job-sharing – the ultimate win-win scenario – appears to satisfy many of the goals of campaigns such as these, yet in many organisations, it’s still viewed with suspicion. Is it all it seems?

Kathy Miller finds out more, and reports from personal experience…

My former job-share partner, Joan, and I got on so well that when someone once asked her how her other half was doing, she replied: 'Oh, she's fine'. Cue raised eyebrows on the part of the questioner… the inquiry wasn't about me at all, but about Joan's husband.

When we began sharing a job in a busy press office, we had clocked up a decade in PR between us. I'd seen Paul, a fellow press officer, share his job so that he could work on the play in his bottom drawer and I remembered what he said about how 'balanced' his life had become as a result: “It's something we're all struggling for, but which many people don't get.”

Our motivations were different. Joan wanted to work part-time after having had a baby and I fancied a crack at freelance journalism, while retaining a regular salary to pay the bills. I guess we must have made a success of our partnership, because four years later, when a rival organisation was looking for a new PR manager, she and I were recommended as a twosome.

Judging by the number of people who refer enviously to my experience in a job-share or ask detailed questions about the practicalities, my former colleague Paul isn't alone in hankering after a work-life balance.

Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University and author of several books on the intricacies of juggling home and work life, argues that job-sharing pays dividends for everyone.

“If people need flexibility in their work, they are grateful to share, they trade their skills base and have someone to share their ideas and their moans with,” he says. “Employers are getting 70 per cent of a person for 50 per cent of the money because they get commitment.”

However many employers still resist the idea of allowing two people to occupy one role, especially a senior one, and of those that condone it some exploit it if means keeping conscientious employees. An enlightened job-share policy, however, can play to people's strengths.

Joan and I would arrive in the office for our respective half-weeks with renewed vigour and enthusiasm, and the five press officers who reported to us had more autonomy that they would have had under one single manager. In return, our employer got two heads for the price of one, holiday and sickness cover and complementary talents: what Joan and I dubbed our 'good cop/bad cop' routine.

In addition to co-operation between the sharers themselves, a successful partnership requires an understanding boss. Robert Seatter, the manager who gave Joan and me our first 'break' as sharers, admits that co-ordinating two workers does demand greater organisation from an employer.

“It needs more planning,,” he says, “but you can assign certain tasks according to the skills of each person and if you work these into a weekly or even annual cycle, there are very few jobs that can't be recalibrated.”

Yet the idea of splitting a job is still heretical stuff for some bosses. Former BBC executive producer Geoff Marshall-Taylor still remembers one TV producer who was initially hostile to the idea because one of the sharers had a young family. “This employee had two children and her producer would send her away on long-distance film shoots, while allowing her childless job partner to stay in London,” he recalls. “It was almost as if the producer was pushing her to prove that she could do it. When she complained he replied that there were ten others would like her job!”

As for the sharers themselves, the ruthlessly ambitious or the untidy should remember that dividing a role means sharing the limelight and leaving detailed handover notes, not half-finished tasks or dirty coffee cups.

It also means never being proprietorial about projects, since harmony between sharers is vital if your employer, employees and clients are to have confidence in you. They’ll all want to be sure that your duties won't fall between two stools or that you won't get mired in professional rivalry.

Just as my colleagues were – I hope – polite enough not to express a preference between Joan and me, so she and I learned to take it in turns to work with Ms Awkward this time if it meant we got Mr Softie next time. Streamlining our efforts meant that we also learned to be honest about our respective shortcomings – and generous with our expertise.

Were we so obliging because we both had compelling reasons for working part-time and therefore were very motivated to make the job-share work – or simply because we are female?

According to Cary Cooper, “Women in particular are good at job-sharing because they tend to be more accommodating and adaptable and they want to juggle work and home life, while men are often doing it for different reasons; they can be so job-driven, that they may be more competitive than co-operative.”

Professor Cooper clearly hasn't met the two female journalists I once knew when they were sharing a job on a local paper. One would habitually nick the other one's stories and take all the credit. This made her so unpopular with her colleagues that she, ironically, was soon 'let go', while her partner got promoted.

So, co-operation, chemistry and communication are central to a job-share's success, and thanks to new technology (email in particular), the communication aspect is easier than it would have been 15 years ago. Yet job-sharing doesn't suit everyone, according to Carole Bertolotti, currently sharing the role of Learning and Development Manager for a major supermarket.

“There can easily be clashes between egos and the key is not to be precious. You must learn to let go and delegate,” she says. “You need to make sure that your partner is kept abreast of everything that goes on in her absence, because the one person you don't spend any time with is the other person doing your job.”

After seven years as sharers in three different organisations, Joan and I remember co-working with tremendous gratitude. We both went on to other job-shares and both acknowledge how much we learned from our early experience. It enabled me to have parallel careers in in PR and journalism (and in case you were wondering, no, I wasn't the pushy hack described above), while Joan retrained and is now job-sharing as a primary school teacher.

She says, “The children benefit from a mix of teaching styles and I am more efficient because I can't leave things messy or unfinished for the other person. And I get a part-time job with responsibility!”

We look back on our joint role with great affection too, partly because our working relationship developed into an enduring friendship and also because of the self-assurance it gave us; when you are forced to rely for half the week on someone else’s professional judgement, you become more confident in your own. “Job-sharing really does test to the limit that phrase about being a team player that everyone trots out in job applications. Because Kathy and I worked well as a package, it had a knock-on effect for our team.”

That bit was from Joan, by the way. In the true spirit of job-sharing, I thought it only fair to let her have the last word…

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