INTERVIEW: How to share a job — and consciously uncouple

Over five years — with one maternity leave break in the middle — Dot and Suz shared three different jobs in the federal public service, working on social policy. And they’d do it all again if they had the chance!

Suz and Dot, job share partnersSuz and Dot, job share partners and now lifelong friends

For anyone considering a job share, they generously gave us the lowdown on what makes a good job share partner, why a crossover day really helps and how to consciously uncouple.

What was the structure of the job share?

BOTH: Suz worked Monday to Wednesday and Dot worked Wednesday to Friday. The Wednesdays that we crossed over were a key part of the job share.

How did the job share come about in the first place?

SUZ: The job share was actually the idea of an old manager. I had been working Mondays to Wednesday after returning from maternity leave and Dot had flagged that she wanted to return part-time also, on Thursdays and Fridays to begin. We managed to line up our days and the rest is history! Well, sort of…

It wasn’t easy in the early days, especially since we didn’t have a day together for the first couple of months so we didn’t really know each other or see each other face to face.

Over time we got to know each other and our working styles and as an added bonus became great friends.

DOT: Even though I hadn’t known Suz before we started job sharing, and I was nervous about going back to work after having my first baby, on my first day back I read the handover email Suz had written me the day before and thought, “That’s exactly how I would write a handover email.” I knew then that this was a good decision and it was going to work out.

Did you ever have to sell the job share idea to a manager?

DOT: We have pitched the job share a few times when we have moved roles. Our organisation was mostly very supportive which helped managers to be open to the idea. The fact that we worked together so well —and our managers saw the benefits and gave great references — also helped to ease the concerns of any potential managers.

Managers were often worried about the fact that we were working the equivalent of 1.2 full-time roles. Once we were able to convince them of the benefits of the crossover day and the outcomes we were able to achieve as a team, they mostly came on board.

Part-time work is only becoming more common and we were able to have the benefits of working part-time while managers and colleagues had the benefit of having someone in the office doing our role every day.

How do your skills complement each other?

SUZ: The best part of the job share was having the privilege of working so closely with Dot. She is confident, cool headed and approaches everything in such a sensible way. I would not be who I am today without her!

When things get a little tough or overwhelming for me at work, I ask myself: “what would Dot do?” and press on. I learnt so much and while I’m sure our skills do complement each other, by continuously learning from each other we became a seamless team.

DOT: I have learned a lot from Suz because even though we have very similar policy brains, we still approach things differently. It’s great to work so closely with someone in that way, it’s like having two brains. Also she’s an extrovert and I’m an introvert, so having Suz around made sure I didn’t just hide in a corner writing all day.

One of the great parts of job sharing is having someone to test ideas with which often results in better outcomes. When you’re managing a team it’s also nice to be able to talk about how to organise your work and how to support your staff with someone who is as invested in it as you.

And as a part-timer or while you’re on maternity leave, it can be easy to feel like you’ve been forgotten when you’re not in the office, or you’re missing out on big announcements or social events. Having a job sharer means no-one will ever forget you, someone will remember to let you know when changes are happening or when the Christmas party is. It’s a way to feel like there’s someone who has your back.

How did you work together? What did that look like? How did you divvy up the work?

SUZ: We didn’t divvy up the work. Sometimes natural divisions occurred because of the rhythm of the work week but we always made sure that the other person was aware of what was going on — we ccd each other into every single email we sent and asked others to do the same.

This was so important because just because I may have started and finished a piece of work on my days didn’t mean that it wasn’t going to come up again on a day that Dot was in the office.

In the early days we weren’t as strict on this as we were trying to save the other person the hassle of catching up on something that we thought was done and dusted — but it caught us out a few times. You just have to get good at managing your inbox!

As much as possible, we tried to work as one person — if someone had a conversation with Dot on Thursday, our expectation was that that person should be able to continue that conversation with me on a Monday.

Handovers were key. The face-to-face catch up on Wednesdays was so important — there are many things that can’t be conveyed in an email. Dot’s handover emails on Fridays helped ease me into Mondays and if things were particularly busy or there was something big happening that was too complicated to explain in an email, we would do a phone handover on Friday afternoon, the weekend or Monday morning depending on schedules.

DOT:  Also, sometimes if something came in on a Friday afternoon and I just couldn’t bear to look at it, I got to leave it for someone else to do on Monday 🙂 (Just kidding, I would never do that…)

SUZ: Dot’s point above is funny but raises a good job sharing point. I reckon if something came in on a Friday, Dot would often do extra work to make sure she could hand something over to me on Monday, whereas if she was working full-time, I suspect she would have left the whole thing for herself to deal with on Monday.

I know I did this, I felt the pressure (from myself, never from Dot) to really make things happen on my days in the office so I could show Dot progress and that I hadn’t just been leaving everything for her return. Managers take note!

How can you quickly assess whether someone will be a good job share partner? (And what kind of person/personality type would a job share not work for?!)

BOTH: There are very few outcomes/achievements, if any, that you can claim as your own as a job sharer. So if you’re in the business of claiming all the glory for your hard work then job sharing probably isn’t for you!

The key to job sharing for us was sharing information — not holding anything back from the other person. So it’s important to find someone who is willing to do this. Partnering up with someone who is on the same wavelength as you is helpful too.

We’re not sure if you can quickly assess this and, on reflection, in our early days of sharing wonder if either of us would have thought we would still be sharing four years down the track.

What was the trickiest thing or moment you had to navigate in your job share?

DOT: We couldn’t share a desk, ever. If you met us in person you would understand why. (It’s to do with height.) So even though we wanted to be treated as one person, we insisted on separate desks.

SUZ: Ha — yep, what she said!

You’ve now consciously uncoupled 🙂 How does that work? How do you start that conversation…

SUZ: It’s so sad….I’m still sad 🙁

That said, we are great friends and want the best for each other professionally and personally. Dot flagged that she wanted to increase her days to 4 and, while I would have stayed at 3 and kept the arrangement going for as long as I could, it probably was time for me to increase my days too. It wasn’t a tough or awkward conversation, it just sort of came about over time.

We are lucky to have a close friendship that allowed it to happen this way. Never say never though, I will always have hope that we might consciously recouple one day!

DOT: I don’t think we intended to uncouple so soon! I was going to increase my days to 4 per week which made us closer to a 2-person headcount than before. At the same time, we were struggling to find a good fit for us in the organisation and were also interested in promotion. It was getting harder to do that as a job sharing team.

In the end, Suz won a well deserved promotion so we both moved on to other things. It was a lot to do with the current climate in terms of recruitment and organisational structure. It was not an easy decision and I don’t think the door has closed on us working together in the future.

We still catch up for dinner and drinks, so there’s a lifelong friendship which won’t change.

Any other wisdom you have for people considering job share?

DOT: I always recommend it to people who are returning to work part-time. It’s so great to know that your work won’t just be piling up while you’re not in the office, and not feel guilty asking someone else to do your work for you while you’re not there (I know many part-timers who feel this way).

Your manager and team needs to be supportive of course. From an organisational perspective I’d encourage businesses to think about how their systems can support job sharing. For example, many HR systems only allow you to have one supervisor who can approve leave. But if your supervisors are job sharing it makes sense for both of them to be able to do that on the system.

There are also some jobs that probably won’t work very well in a job sharing situation. We spent a few weeks doing some strategic organisational restructuring type work which was hard — when you spend five hours a day having wide-ranging conversations about big picture stuff, that can be really difficult to then explain to someone else to the extent that they fully understand what was discussed. So some jobs will work better than others.

SUZ: Like Dot, I recommend it. Job sharing has been one of the best things that has happened to me professionally. It meant that I was able to get through those years of having young kids and keep at least part of my sanity. That said, finding the right person and a supportive environment is important.

If job sharing sounds like you, take a lot at Beam’s latest job share roles.