Meet the Job Sharing Guru with Melissa Nicholson
Conversation with Melissa Nicholson, Founder & CEO, Work Muse
Meet the Job Sharing Guru
April 24, 2019
1. What is your business?
My company is Work Muse, the sole U.S. job share company. Work Muse drives adoption of job sharing in business as a competitive advantage while helping individuals find work-life balance. We define job sharing as a partnership between two employees who share the responsibilities of one full-time position, and we believe it is a win-win for employers and employees. Job sharers separate and prioritize work and life to bring their best to each while employers benefit from 24/7 coverage without burnout and turnover.
Work Muse offers programs and online training, implementation, and support to companies looking to attract and retain diverse talent. Research shows job sharers to be among the most productive, loyal, and happiest employees. This translates into higher employee retention and solution-driven results. Job sharing can be short term for life stage or family responsibilities, or it can be longer term for career partners who even move through career transitions together.
Job sharing is a great way to recruit and retain diverse talent, specifically women, but also people of different backgrounds. Many companies are looking to increase their organization’s diversity and for good reason: It’s been found that companies that are gender diverse outperform companies who are not by 21% and companies who are overall diverse in ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and age outperform other companies by 33%.
While the goal is clear, it can be hard to find the right tools to bring all sorts of people to work and ensure they feel seen, heard, and valued. Pairing employees from different backgrounds—for cross-gender, cross-gender identification, cross-generational, or cross-cultural job sharing—is an innovative inclusion tool. This diversity of thought and perspectives can lead to outcomes that are more reflective of a company’s customers.
While there are endless reasons to adopt job sharing, only about one to two percent of people actually job share. It’s remained overwhelmingly employee-driven, mostly for employees who are facing a difficult life situation and cannot work 40 or 50 hours a week. These employees are valuable and have proven their worth, so job sharing becomes a way for their boss to retain them. The most common scenarios are women who’ve just had a baby, maybe twins or a child with special needs, or someone who is senior in their career and now taking care of aging parents.
The reason job sharing has remained rare is layered and complex. Our culture of overwork in the U.S. has only increased with digital overtime and the disintegration of work boundaries, further increasing the stigma against those who work part-time as less committed to their careers. Where once the U.S. led in working women, it’s no secret we’ve fallen far behind countries who offer a strong safety net to support families. And without company-wide job share programs available to all employees, primary caregivers—aka women—have made up the majority of job sharers.
From the employer perspective, it sounds complicated from the outside—double communication, double accountability for work, double the management. In reality, job share partners are hyper-accountable, focused, more productive, and require less management. We work with employees as well as employers to employ our strategies and processes for a smooth adoption.
2. What made you decide to start your business and/or switch careers?
I job shared for nearly a decade when I worked in radio advertising sales. In my partnership, I worked three days a week, with full-time benefits with pay driven by sales commission. Working this way was the most supportive, productive way for me to work with small children. I loved job sharing and couldn’t believe the practice was so rare.
When I talked about job sharing with other parents, I saw their eyes light up. In both personal and professional conversations; everyone wanted to know more. It seemed to me that there was a ton of demand, but I couldn’t figure out why job sharing was still so rare. I took a deep dive into the research and discovered the benefits I enjoyed were all corroborated by the data. The gap was education. There was no training or educational resources for companies or individuals, resulting in companies without formalized policies or the knowledge and resources to support job sharing.
Job sharing had gone nowhere in nearly five decades despite the massive benefits to employees and businesses. If I didn’t take up the torch and change it, who would?
3. Was there one moment that gave you the confidence that this was a good idea?
There was never one moment, but I had so much conviction about the value of job sharing. It changed my life forever and gave my kids the best of both worlds—they had a passionate career mom and stay-at-home mom wrapped into one. Plus, it was a unique aspect of my marriage because we were truly equal co-parents from the very beginning. My husband was lead parent three days a week, and I was lead parent four days a week.
4. What obstacles did you face in getting started and thinking of yourself as an expert in a new setting?
Creating an industry essentially from scratch was a giant challenge. It needed a top-down and bottom-up approach, massive awareness and education just to make the concept understandable. The website had to appeal to both individuals and employers, two very different demographics. The next step was increasing awareness and education through the Work Muse Job Share Project with video case studies featuring job share teams and managers. Then, it was time to test the training I’d developed with piloted workshops and training sessions.
We’re now building a community for people who’d like to make connections, learn, and support each other. Like the top-down, bottom-up approach, we have two: one for people interested in job sharing on Facebook Job Share, Live Life + Slay Work and the other for employers looking to learn more on LinkedIn Job Sharing for Work-Life Balance.
It wasn’t hard to think of myself as a job share expert. I’d done my research, put in the work, and had hands-on experience job sharing with several partners over many years. What was hard was overcoming imposter syndrome and my own perfectionism. You have to be willing to use your wheelhouse and add to it knowing you will stumble and fall, sometimes publicly, and be OK with that. I like to have all my “t’s” crossed and “i’s” dotted, and sometimes, you just have to dive in not knowing the outcome. That part terrifies me on most days.
5. Was there ever a particularly tough time that in retrospect was a priceless learning moment?
All of it! It was far more isolating than I was used to, going from a place that was go, go, go in the fast-paced radio industry to sequestering myself to an office. I would push myself to jump in and say “yes” to things that made sense or “no” to things that derailed my focus. I threw myself outside of my comfort zone to give interviews, be a panelist, and learn how to effectively present workshops. It’s not second-nature, and I was fortunate to have an advisor skilled in workshop facilitation generously mentor me.
6. Were there any partnerships or advice that were particularly helpful?
One of my friends, who is in the textile industry, encouraged me to think of Work Muse as a process. Part of the process was creating education around the topic, so I created a video case study showcasing the wonderful aspects and the challenging ones. It really went into every aspect. Taking the time to invest in the process—researching, piloting workshops, working with people one-on-one, creating education and training—has helped me develop the most useful program for people.
The support I’ve found connecting with other women entrepreneurs, especially those in a similar space, has been vital for resource and advice-sharing, brainstorming, and partnering for co-promotion.
7. Was outside funding/cost a challenge to getting your business off the ground?
Not to begin it but definitely to stay in it. I started Work Muse with little overhead as a coaching and consulting practice. In fact, I work from a modular office conveniently located in our backyard for my own work-life balance; I’m in close proximity to my kids’ schools, afterschool programs, and my husband’s work. This luxury has given me more time for the marathon ahead. Building the ship while you’re sailing it is not for the faint of heart, but these decisions have made a measured difference.
8. What are some successes you have had with your business that make you proud?
I had the opportunity to train flexible work employees from Target Corporate who work flexibly, including about a hundred who currently job share. Typically, I train people who have no experience in job sharing but, in this situation, some of the Target employees had been job sharing for decades.
It was thrilling digging into the deeper benefits and support systems needed to thrive in job sharing and tools to be promoted. We specifically focused on how to establish their value, advance as a team, and improve the process even more. A number of the people in this initial training have also come to me as coaching clients which has been really gratifying.
The best part of Work Muse is meeting inspiring, courageous, and genuinely good people—for the most part, women who are moms and caregivers—and empowering them to make a change that will impact their entire families’ lives for the better.
9. Is your business impacted or helped by government regulations?
Yes, if our country had a social safety net similar to other developed nations. Throughout the world, countries similar to the U.S. have subsidized healthcare, childcare, and paid parental leave to support families and employees.
I believe policy and structural changes will allow women to thrive in their careers and part-time working, like job sharing, to grow. Primary caregivers (aka women) in demanding, high travel careers are forced to drop out or fall back. Job sharing is for everyone, but women have the most to gain from staying in the game and excelling to whatever suite they choose while having the time needed to take care of children or aging parents.
10. Have there been positive or negative impacts on your family and work/life balance once your business was off the ground?
Definitely, my husband and my roles have shifted some. We were very equal co-parents as a direct result of job sharing. And I have to be very intentional about my work-life boundaries. The job structure of job sharing trained me well in that, and I’ve always been very disciplined, but it’s a constant struggle. Our family looks at it like an intense Ph.D. program. There’s sacrifice at the start, but it gives me wings to hear my kids talk about how proud they are of what I’m doing and the people I’m helping.
11. Have there ever been moments when you have regretted what you started or had to abandon part of the plan?
My husband and I are both business owners, and private health insurance in Texas has gotten obscene the past few years. I had a moment last year when I briefly considered taking an opportunity to return to corporate. The money and healthcare benefits were attractive, but my husband was insistent, “No way. You’ve come too far.” He is the most authentic and supportive partner I could ever hope for, and I knew he was right.
12. What are your hopes for your business for the next five years?
To create online education that brings job sharing to thousands, if not millions, of people. More than that, I want to empower people to have every element and tool needed to create a rewarding and effective job sharing experience.
My goal is to establish online education surrounding job sharing and a platform to support businesses for every aspect of job sharing.
Conversation Date: March 26, 2019