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Is job sharing the solution to our flexible work problems?

Job sharing can help protect against burnout, let employees explore their interests, help with retention, and give everyone the flexibility they crave. So why aren’t more companies doing it?

Is job sharing the solution to our flexible work problems?
[Source illustration: nadia_bormotova/iStock]
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The nine-to-five in-person American workday is rigid, arbitrary, and increasingly outdated. Yet, if an employee wants to trim their hours to part time they often risk losing opportunities for advancement, getting caught in a slippery slope of pulling far more than 20 hours a week in exchange for more flexibility but less pay. And for women who are parents, they frequently end up getting slapped with the “mommy track,” label and taken less seriously by colleagues who relentlessly value a 60-hour work week. That’s where job sharing—a model where two professionals with complementary skill sets pair to interchangeably fill a single professional role—can be a winning solution.

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In Switzerland, where a third of the workforce logs less than full-time hours already, job sharing has really taken off even at the highest corporate levels, where it’s not uncommon for a CEO position to be a top share (a job sharing in senior management). “We’re slashers,” says Irenka Krone, introducing herself and her job sharing partner Nina Prochazka over Zoom from Switzerland. They cohead communication, network and knowledge management at CINFO, and work together at Association PTO (part-Time optimisation), matching and coaching job-share and top-share pairs and advocating for flexible work models. “People can have strong passions for more than one thing and adopting job sharing can allow them to combine different activities without running into burnout,” says Krone.

When they first started promoting job sharing in Switzerland nearly a decade ago, there was a perception that the arrangement was just to help parents, specifically mothers, have a better work–life balance. But over time, it’s evolved and these days they are coaching many men, cross-gender pairs, and individuals who have no children. “Two people by default, always bring in more competencies than one person,” says Prochazka. She’s seen cross-generational shares particularly increase diversity in the Swiss workplace. Most involve a boomer with deep expertise who wants to pass on knowledge and still have time for travel and board positions, and a younger manager who brings tech knowledge and fresh perspectives. But even the best pair flatlines if there isn’t solid communication and trust in place.

How it works

In their own job share, Prochazka says, “we definitely do more than one person could do.” In pure job sharing, each employee typically works 60% to 70% and both people overlap one day per week. Unlike a job split, those who job share are completely interdependent with the same responsibilities, contract, and performance evaluation. The arrangement is often compared to a marriage—kicking that popular “work spouse” hashtag up a notch.

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When it comes to requesting a job share, Prochazka says, “it’s always an advantage if one person is already an insider or known to the company.” She and Krone coach those considering a job share through a 10-step checklist which includes links to online matchmaking platforms like We Jobshare, and advises matched pairs to prepare a presentation for HR including all the advantages that job sharing a role will bring to the company. “Find a partner who is stronger in areas you’re not so strong in and vice versa,” suggests Melissa Nicholson, founder of Work Muse, the first U.S.-based job sharing firm. She estimates that just 1% to 2% of the U.S. workforce job shares but it’s rare to see positions because companies are worried existing employees will want to hop on board too and that would require convincing management.

Nicholson herself weathered eight different managers while job sharing with four different partners over nine years in the radio industry. “Every time, we would have to retrain the managers because they came in with such skepticism.”

To help battle that skepticism, Work Muse launched Job Share Academy, an online training program “for creating, selling, and getting the green light for your job share.” Once the job share is negotiated and approved, it’s up to the pair to decide how to divide and conquer and keep the communication lines open—the best way being to overlap for at least one day a week. “Typically, people who want a job share are complete go-getters who are really vested in their careers and their jobs. They also want to be successful with their families—they just want to do it differently,” explains Nicholson.

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An old idea that’s getting new life

Given all the U.S. pushback, it’s ironic that the concept of job sharing is actually American in origin—first formally taking place in Nebraska in 1975, when the forward-thinking Alice Dittman, a single mother of three, became president of the Cornhusker Bank in Lincoln and instituted a job-sharing program for parents.

Dr. Amy Beacom, CEO of the Center for Parental Leave Leadership, first came across job sharing in San Francisco at Levi’s headquarters back in the 1990s, when she met a top-sharing duo of women who together held one senior management role. Today Beacom employs job sharers herself but concedes, “from an employer perspective, it’s extra work to get set up, plus the increased cost of two benefits packages.” Yet she insists, “what I save is much more than what I spend.” The extra groundwork and fees are far outweighed by the potential cost of losing a longstanding employee, their institutional memory and client relationships, and then recruiting and training someone new.

Large corporations with job sharing include Accenture, KPMG, Clorox, Deloitte, General Electric, and Target, though none has a formal program. That means it’s up to existing or aspiring employees to pair up and take the initiative to pitch the idea to Human Resources. Liz Stapleton Zerella, who worked in the corporate finance department of a Bay Area-based consumer products company was one of them and had already been at her company for years before having her first child, approaching a colleague in a similar scenario, and talking to management about a job share.

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“We job shared for nine years, shared four different roles, and got promoted,” Zerella says. Having a very supportive boss helped. “He loved Wednesdays when we were both in the office because we could be in two places at once. He said it was magic,” she laughs. “But you actually do get more done with two brains and two bodies looking at situations from different perspectives and coming up with even better recommendations and solutions because you are collaborative.”

Creating a flexible work option will attract more entrepreneurial employees and grow a more diverse workplace—one that walks the values talk by supporting and retaining parents, caregivers, students, and seniors. 

Danna Lorch is a Boston-based freelance writer covering the trades, architecture, design, and parenting. Her stories have appeared in Architectural Digest, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.