Anybody who has ever been burned out at work and wished for a few days to breathe without using precious vacation days may be interested in the solution employed by Sarah Hammer and Mimi Su.
The two, senior marketing directors at the consumer giant Unilever, share one job. One works for an intense week in their current role, at Unilever’s Pepsi Lipton Partnership, and then, when Wednesday comes around, she hands off responsibilities to the other for the next week.
This job sharing allows each woman to pursue ambitious career goals while still having time to spend with her family or explore other interests. Hammer, for instance, was the president of the parent-teacher organization at her children’s elementary school for two years during the pandemic while job sharing at Unilever. Though each woman gets 60% pay, they say that working together, they’re much more productive than one person would be. One person would have to work 65-hour weeks to get the job done, they say.
“I’m almost off and I’ve been dying these past couple days, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel because Sarah’s coming on,” Su said on a recent Wednesday. “And then your brain really does recharge, and when I am ready to come back, Sarah’s almost dead. So it’s a great dynamic where we’re able to rest a bit.”
Women’s participation in the workforce has essentially flatlined since 1999, and the share of women working or looking for a job, 57.4%, is still below pre-pandemic levels. As employers report labor shortages, many women say that the pandemic motivated them to want to work less, not more. Job sharing could enable both women and men to have it all, allowing them to work less but still stay engaged with their careers.
Though job sharing is still extremely rare, it’s a solution that some employers are using to recruit and retain key talent. In September 2022, Ford launched a matchmaking tool to help employees find compatible people within the company with whom to job share; the tool now has more than 70 profiles. As police departments struggle to recruit and retain staff, a March 2023 report from the Bureau of Justice Assistance suggested job sharing as a way for police departments across the country to hire more staff. And in Australia, the number of job postings using the term “job share” or “work share” spiked during pandemic-related lockdowns, according to research by the hiring firm Indeed.
“Many companies, like us, recognize the benefits of allowing associates to split a full-time position, such as healthy succession, job satisfaction, and work-life balance,” says Mark Mathia, chief experience officer of Signature Performance, a health care administration company based in Omaha. In health care, many workers are approaching retirement age, Mathia says, and his company is looking for ways to extend the time that high-performing older employees contribute to the firm. Job sharing will allow Signature to keep on older employees while transitioning management to the younger generation, he says.
The pandemic has been a push for many employers to explore more flexibility. Companies that offer more flexibility are having an easier time growing quickly and recruiting new workers.
“Over the last three years, we’ve learned a lot about how to work in new ways and recognize that there is simply no one-size-fits-all approach to benefits,” says Kimberly Jones, people experience leader at PwC, which offers job sharing. “We also know that having the ability to work flexibly—and get work done where and how it best suits our people—is one of our most valued offerings.”
Job sharing isn’t just for women—it could help men and fathers get more involved in their family life by allowing them to balance ambitious careers and their families, says Josh Levs, the author of All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families, and Businesses—And How We Can Fix It Together. “The key is to give people choices,” he says.
Job sharing is part of what helped keep Sarah Hammer at Unilever. After the birth of her third child in 2016, Hammer wanted to work fewer hours, but the part-time marketing jobs available weren’t appealing to her. They were often project-based, and not very fast-moving, and didn’t include managing a team. But Hammer knew Unilever allowed for job sharing in some departments, so Hammer pitched her boss on the idea of job sharing with Su, who she knew from business school—and had formerly worked for Unilever and who had also just had a child. Though no one else in the marketing department was doing it, the company approved their job share as marketing manager of Hellman’s mayonnaise, a Unilever brand. They were so successful in the position that last year, they got promoted to an even bigger role within Unilever, handling bottled tea for the Pepsi Lipton Partnership.
Even before the pandemic, many professional workers were starting to rethink work. Open-plan offices were full of distractions, and many workaholics were questioning whether spending so many hours at the office was really making them happy. The pandemic normalized working from home and also got many people thinking about what kind of work-life balance they would have in an ideal world.
Now, more people are trying different ways of working—taking a few months in the summer off, pursuing a four-day workweek, working fewer hours, and even job sharing.
“There has been a sea change for many organizations and leaders,” says Jessica DeGroot, the president of the Third Path Institute, which helps workers find a better balance between work and home life. During the pandemic, “leaders’ eyes were opened and they realized they could do their job well without going into the office every day—and that they liked how it felt for their families.”
This is not the first time office workers have tried to re-balance their personal and professional lives. As more women entered the workforce in the 1970s and 1980s, the MIT management professor Lotte Bailyn called on companies to help employees better attend to personal obligations; without parents who go to back-to-school nights or volunteer in classrooms, she argued, schools couldn’t adequately educate the next generation of workers. “Framing the issue as a conflict between employees’ private needs and the competitive and productivity needs of U.S. enterprise is self-defeating for both,” she wrote, in her 1993 book Breaking the Mold: Women, Men, and Time in the New Corporate World.
Companies need to think less about how much time someone is spending at their actual job and more about whether they are getting the most important work accomplished, she argued at the time. But not many companies changed their way of thinking until recently.
There were some: Ford, for instance, has long offered job sharing, and the team that redesigned the Ford Explorer in 2011 was led by two women, Julie Rocco and Julie Levine, who were job sharing at the time. Ford’s European offices have quite a few people who job share, the company says, including Sian Hodgson-Wood, a senior IT manager who has been sharing her job for eight years and has worked at Ford for 27. The job she shares has expanded into a bigger role because she and her partner are so effective together, she says. Both she and her job share partner started at Ford 27 years ago. “One of the amazing things about our company is that it is very good at supporting work-life balance,” says Hodgson-Wood, who is based in the U.K. “It’s the reason many of us stay for many, many years.”
Hodgson-Wood helped launch Job Share Connect, the Ford tool that allows employees to seek other internal candidates with whom to job share, last fall. She has also worked to educate Ford colleagues about job sharing; now, when the company lists a new position, managers have to say why it couldn’t be a job share. Otherwise, it’s assumed that it could be, she says.
Obstacles to job sharing
Even today, just around 20% of U.S. companies say they offer job sharing, estimates Melissa Nicholson, the founder of Work Muse, a company that consults people and businesses looking into job sharing. And even at companies that do offer it, in many cases, managers may not realize it’s an option. That’s often because HR representatives or company leaders discourage job sharing because of the potential headaches in hiring two people for one role. (Nicholson did a job share for nine years in the radio industry, and says it allowed her to be so focused on work for the days she was working that, on those days, she never set foot in her kids’ daycare.)
Nicholson says inquiries from people who want to job share but can’t find companies that support it are growing. Workers can also struggle to find someone with whom they’re compatible.
Nicholson says inquiries from people who want to job share but can’t find companies that support it are growing. Workers can also struggle to find someone with whom they’re compatible. There have been a few start-ups, one in the U.K. called Roleshare, and one in the U.S. called Job Share Connect (which is different from the platform with the same name that is an internal Ford employee tool) that have tried to match prospective job seekers with one another. But those job seekers sometimes have trouble convincing companies to hire them, says Jina Hwang, one of the co-founders of Job Share Connect. “I worry that job sharing is a bit ahead of its time,” says Hwang. “We’re just not in the right place to have it widely adopted.”
Job Share Connect was about to enter into a contract with a health care company to build out an internal job sharing model when the company got acquired, Hwang says, and the new owner “was threatened by job sharing.”
The experience of dreaming of job sharing but never quite getting it to work is common. Kelsey Sevening had a job share approved by her boss and two executives at the tech company where she worked until recently, and had found a job share partner, but at the last minute, human resources nixed the arrangement. She still works full-time.
Still, as companies struggle to recruit and retain workers in a tight job market, job sharing could catch on—especially at firms committed to recruiting and retaining women in leadership. Job sharing has, according to various studies published in research journals over the past few years, helped encourage more women into senior roles in higher education, prevent burnout among female physicians in Canada, and improved employee productivity and firm performance at small companies in Nigeria.
There are obvious benefits for short-staffed companies: since the workers coordinate vacation time and days off, there will always be someone “on” in a job share position, and job sharers have the benefit of many more years of experience, combined, than just one person would have. And of course there’s the benefit of coming back to work after a few days off.
“Mimi comes on after having been off for a while, and she has good ideas and suggestions that I can’t even get to because I’m like so deep in the weeds,” says Hammer. “She’s looking at it with fresh eyes.”
Hammer and Su are proof that job-sharing can work in more than one way: After they left their old role and were promoted to a new one, the company struggled to fill the job. Eventually, the company upgraded it to a more senior role, figuring it wouldn’t be able to find one person at a junior level to do all that Hammer and Su had done.
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Contributor: Alana Semuels