The untapped potential of job sharing
or, an interview with Melissa Nicholson, Founder and CEO of Work Muse
A few years ago, when a European friend of mine mentioned that she was going to “job share”, I was intrigued. Part of me figured it must be one of those magical things that only happen in Scandinavia—like being able to build IKEA furniture without flying into a fit of rage or actually having a functioning social safety net 😏. So when I stumbled on Melissa Nicholson’s Instagram page, I was thrilled! Not only is job sharing happening here in the US, but she’s leading the charge. I knew I had to interview her for the newsletter.
Melissa is the founder of Work Muse, the first U.S. job share company and a global thought leader in job sharing. Work Muse drives the adoption of job sharing in business as a source of competitive advantage while helping individuals find work-life balance. It brings training, implementation, and support to help companies design sustainable job share programs and to help individuals create their own successful job shares. Work Muse launched the first-ever online job share training program Job Share Academy in 2022. She is the mom of two teenagers and previously spent nearly a decade in a job share herself.
JW: Most people have never heard of job sharing. Can you start by telling us what it is?
MN: Job sharing is one of the least known, most innovative flexible work practices, but few people have ever heard of it. In truth, around 20% of U.S. companies offer job sharing but nearly none have an official policy or promote it to employees leading to only a sliver of employees learning about or working this way. Even those who job share keep it on the DL viewing their job share as a rare privilege they might lose if they were to shine too bright a light on their arrangement.
At Work Muse, we define job sharing as a partnership between two people to share the responsibilities of one full-time position. Job sharing is literally what it sounds like: you are sharing one job—and all that entails. How would it feel to share the hours, the travel, and the responsibilities of your job? And how many women would step into leadership positions if they only knew rising through the ranks with a partner was an option for them? Job sharing enables part-time work in a high impact role.
In a job share, you typically work three days a week, then hand over your work baton to your trusted partner so you can rest, recharge, and return to work four days later ready to hit the ground running. While there are many benefits to job sharing, the most striking to me are the ability to find a true work-life balance by separating and prioritizing your career and life, working in a part-time capacity but in a high-impact role, and how fulfilled you feel working collaboratively with your awesome job share partner.
JW: Are there certain roles or personality styles that are best suited for job sharing?
MN: The great news is that nearly any role can be shared. The interesting thing is that although it originated in the US and UK in the 1970’s starting with administrative roles, job sharing works in most roles, including sales and client-facing roles, leadership and team management roles, strategic and knowledge-based roles, fast-paced or highly transactional roles, and senior roles in global, fast-paced organizations. There are even lawmakers and CEOs who job share. And with an increased demand from the top-down for companies to focus on the health and well-being of those who work for them, there’s been a noticeable increase in job sharing in the C-Suite.
More so than the role, personality and work traits do matter, and job sharing is not a fit for everyone, so it’s important to make sure it’s right for you. The personal and career rewards are great, but you’ll be sharing your career, income, and personal life with your partner, and the stakes are higher. Those who work best this way are committed, high performers who are organized and detail-oriented. They enjoy collaboration and are good communicators with a flexible attitude who trust others. If you exhibit a majority of these qualities, you could be a good candidate for job sharing. Like any flexible work practice, it should be personalized so you can find the one that allows you to be most productive .
Job share success largely depends on personal fit, the right partner, and supportive management.
JW: Walk us through how job shares work on a practical level.
MN: Job sharing may seem complicated from the outside, and while it takes time on the front end to create the arrangement and on-ramp smoothly, job sharing is simple once in place. There are several models of job sharing and its design is flexible, but the main thing all job shares have in common are a seamless communication system and a handover process to pass the work baton back and forth.
Typically, each employee works three days a week, with both partners overlapping one day a week. In most cases, job share partners are interchangeable with the same responsibilities, contract, and performance evaluation. Although dually responsible for the overall role, as a team, they decide upon which tasks to share and which to divide, based on each partner’s strengths. Another wonderful aspect of job sharing is that partners professionally develop one another on-the-job as they learn from one another’s expertise, brainstorm challenges, and collaborate together.
Once job sharing, you’ll find yourself working in a whole new way — a hyper-focused, efficient, and productive way that feels as if you are squeezing five days into three. You won’t be jamming dentist appointments or errands into your working hours and “water cooler time” will be a thing of the past. It really shifts your perspective on how you utilize your time at work and propels you and your partner into a leadership mindset. It’s no coincidence that nearly three-quarters of job sharers are promoted together.
Your shared handover time with your partner is so energizing and together, you get so much done. It’s like having a work BFF who has your back in work and life. Together, you’ll achieve more than you ever could solo. Sharing your career can be one of the most supportive and satisfying ways to work, which leads many who job share to never want to work any other way.
There’s truly no other work practice that allows you to unplug 100% on your “off” days to rest, recharge, and return to work excited to be there and see all that your partner has accomplished while you’ve been enjoying your life. Many find a new sense of joy in their work, and never want to work any other way.
JWL Like all things in life, I'm sure job sharing comes with both benefits and trade-offs. How can people begin thinking this through?
MN: The benefits to both you and your employer are numerous, but of course there are a few trade-offs to consider. Namely, you’ll be taking a pay cut initially in exchange for reclaiming half your time. And though many job sharers retain full-time benefits, not all do. But with aligned commitment, job share teams can be promoted together, and some end up making nearly as much as they did working full-time (I did! We worked on commission and split our income 50/50, but by the end of our first year, we worked so productively I made around 90% of my previous year’s income.)
Additionally, you and your partner will need to put in the upfront work and internal coordination to decide upon your systems and keep your partnership aligned and seamless for stakeholders you work with.
Another consideration is that the risk is greater than working solo in a full-time position. Your partner may leave due to life circumstances and you’ll need to have check-ins with one another to ensure the partnership is healthy. You’ll sharpen your conflict resolution skills and you can’t be afraid to address issues as they arise. Don’t let that scare you, working through challenges this way can lead to better outcomes.
There is also more at stake sharing your profession, your income, and your personal life, making it even more important to step into a “we personality” as a team. That can be hard at first for people who are afraid to give up control, but most who job share soon find that their partners might do something differently than they do, but it works just as well. It feels good to not “do it all,” even if we’ve been socialized as women to take the lead.
Working this way takes greater flexibility and commitment to your job share by attending important ad-hoc meetings on “off” days, scheduling time off, and covering your partner, when needed. This is often during a parental leave or when life throws one of you a curveball. Nobody will have your back like your job share partner during a crisis.
JW: How can someone pitch the idea of job sharing to their organization?
MN: That is the perfect way to frame it! It’s pretty unlikely that your organization will approach you with the opportunity to job share. Most likely, you will have to create your job share. With that said, being able to pitch it effectively is key to gaining approval for your arrangement. Not only has your manager probably never worked directly with a job share team before, but, they may never have even heard of job sharing.
Don’t let that deter you. The best way to get the green light is by presenting the business case for your job share as two high-achieving professionals. You’ll need to create a proposal with your soon-to-be partner. Your job share proposal should be clear, address manager concerns proactively, include each partner’s working schedule, as well as how you will share and divide your core responsibilities.
It can be helpful to cite similar roles that job shared successfully inside or outside of your workplace. Look into your organization’s flexible work policies and show how job sharing aligns with it’s values. For example, if your organization values well-being, demonstrate how job sharing advances that goal. The most important piece of pitching your job share is to demonstrate that you’ve thoughtfully designed your job share with the role and company in mind first. You’ll also want to make it clear that you and your partner accept joint accountability for it’s performance.
You need to think of your discussion with your boss as a negotiation. As hard as it is to believe, your job share will benefit your employer even more than it will benefit you, and I encourage all soon-to-be job sharers to make the business case and negotiate their pay and benefits up-front. Just like any negotiation, you’ll want to be prepared for objections and ready with a Plan B.
If you’d like to learn more, The Work Muse Guide to Job Sharing: The Step-by-Step Blueprint to Creating a Successful Job Share is a free resource we offer to get started with job sharing.
JW: What are the organizational benefits and the potential roadblocks (and suggestions for how to proactively address them!)
MN: The organizational benefits are massive, but it’s hard for organizations to go against the grain. The biggest challenge has less to do with job sharers and more to do with the fear and misconceptions around an unfamiliar work practice, until line managers experience working with a job share team personally. Their biggest fears are around accountability and communication — oh, and vacation. They are always so worried about who will be taking vacation and if it will be covered! Ironically, job sharers are hyper-accountable to one another and super communicators. What’s more, one of the biggest benefits of job sharing is that they get full-time work coverage while employees get work-life balance. Job sharers have less absenteeism and are among the most loyal, happy, and productive employees.
Job sharing also actively reduces burnout and high turnover, which we are seeing at an all-time high in the U.S., while increasing engagement and producing better results. Partners are leveraging two minds and two skill sets in one hefty job. And let’s get real, most of our jobs call for so much more than one person can do effectively alone. Once stakeholders, including managers start working with a job share team and let go of their misconceptions, they realize they’ve got a leadership duo on their team — one whom rarely comes to them with problems (they work them out together), they hardly have to manage, and stakeholders find on top of and ahead of their deadlines. Their job share team reflects back a bright light on them as managers and brings more energy and fun to the whole office.
JW: Clearly the success of job sharing relies, in large part, on the strength of the job sharing partnership. What are the best practices you've seen for creating and sustaining strong partnerships?
Finding a partner is probably the biggest obstacle those exploring job sharing share with me, but it’s much simpler than people think. I always say it’s a lot like spotting a VW bug. Once you’re on the look, you’ll start seeing potential partners everywhere! They don’t have to work with you or be a lot like you either. In fact, partners with diverse backgrounds can bring better results to their work through their varied lived experiences. It’s a lot like dating, you’re looking for chemistry! Somebody you’re compatible with who fills in your gaps, and vice-versa.
Before you decide to job share together, you’ll definitely want to sit down to talk through your goals and expectations, personal and professional, and how you envision your job share looking. Once you begin, you’ll want to work together full-time first for a short period while working through the day-to-day of the job and deciding and implementing your communication system and handover process. Job sharing is like any relationship, frequent check-ins will keep it healthy and on-track. And above all, mutual respect and trust is the golden rule for happy job sharing.
Favorite stage of parenthood… Oh gosh, that’s a toughie! My kids are both going to be in high school next year and I can hardly believe it. This is the most challenging time of parenting I’ve ever faced, but also, I just love seeing who they are becoming. I also loved the sweet spot time when they were around 3rd to 5th grade, able to do more by themselves but still wanting to cuddle. But I have to say, I really loved the first year of their lives. I guess I just love babies - smelling them, seeing how they wake up with an instant smile on their faces, or those crazy belly laughs.
Favorite family vacation spot… I think my favorite vacation experience was going to Oaxaca, Mexico the first week of January. We found the perfect oasis in a family compound built in the 70’s nestled in the lush, cool mountains just outside of el centro. We did so much exploring, hiking, and relaxing. I think I just brought a whole new energy into 2023 with me, and that might be why it stands out as such a magical experience.
Best piece of advice you received as a working mom… Hands down, the best piece of advice came from my children’s daycare owner, who was also a friend. I was busting at the seams with excitement when I got my job share and told her that I’d only need day care three days a week. She assured me she could help me and work it out but told me, “Melissa, you’re going to have Iris in daycare four days a week. I insist! Trust me, you can leave her home sometimes if you like, but you’ll need that extra day just for you.” My company never knew I had daycare coverage four days a week, but I did, and I’m so glad! I took acting classes and dance classes on Wednesdays, tackled the unpaid labor, did DIY decorating projects, and become a cooking enthusiast! I even joined the board of a reproductive healthcare non-profit I was passionate about because I had the bandwidth to help. So, that’s the piece of advice I give all job sharers. Take one day just for you. You deserve it!
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