Jennifer Donnelly, left, and Amy Rofman shared a job for several years at the State Department. They say it helped them maintain their careers at a time when they needed flexibility.

Jennifer Donnelly, left, and Amy Rofman shared a job for several years at the State Department. They say it helped them maintain their careers at a time when they needed flexibility. Jennifer Donnelly and Amy Rofman

Feeling alone? Try a job share

COMMENTARY | Two former State Department job-sharers reflect on their experience serving the mission of the department and each other.

The surgeon general’s report on the epidemic of loneliness and the call to reimagine “the structures, policies, and programs that shape a community to best support the development of healthy relationships” has inspired us to reflect on a decision we made as federal employees when we had young children in 2007. That decision had a profound positive impact on our mental health, our long-term resilience to loneliness and overall well-being: job sharing. 

Before we had kids, we were in different State Department offices, sometimes finding ourselves on opposite ends of a contentious, policy creation process. While the spirited debate that is typical of government policymaking can get heated, it was always collegial between the two of us. We enjoyed working on compromises together.

One evening, after many hours at work, we were startled to bump into each other in the dingy basement mailroom of our apartment building in the Van Ness neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Two things became instantly clear: we were neighbors, and we were both pregnant. We commiserated about riding Metro during the third trimester and decided to start carpooling so we could afford parking in pricey Foggy Bottom. During those drives together down Massachusetts Avenue and Rock Creek Parkway, the seeds of a friendship started to grow.

On our maternity leave, we spent time wandering the Van Ness neighborhood together, with coffees in hand, pushing our strollers, trying to adjust. We had the overwhelming experience that most new parents feel, but we also found we enjoyed hanging out together with our little ones. Dread set in as the date for our return to work drew near. How were we going to manage full-time jobs?

Both of our offices allowed us some flexibility to ease back in, accommodating us with temporary part-time arrangements, but it was still taxing as new moms. The workload was not any less demanding. Phone calls and emails arrived during our off days. Colleagues soon became irritated that we were not available every day. Lengthy international trips we took before we had newborns were out of the question, an irritant to management. We watched as interesting projects went to full-time staff. Forget any office happy hours or networking events. The clock was ticking on our temporary part-time status. How could we spend quality time with the babies, keep the careers that we loved on track, and earn much-needed salaries? We could have tried to do it just as countless other parents have had to do: figure it out somehow and hope for the best. Or we could try to pave our own path and take advantage of a mysterious possibility we had vaguely heard about but never encountered first-hand: job sharing.

As we researched our options, we found that job sharing was rare but that the federal government endorsed it. According to the Office of Personnel Management, “when employers must staff a position on a full-time basis, job sharing is an option. Job sharing is a form of part-time employment in which one position is filled with two or more part-time employees. Job sharing has added benefits for management…agencies also benefit from having the special skills and abilities of two unique individuals.” Job sharing is not just for new parents, by the way. It can work for any employees dealing with challenging life situations or who may want fewer hours.

We pitched the idea to the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Human Trafficking — one of us was already there. Management agreed. What happened next and over the next seven years? We became a powerhouse team and formed an incredible bond that lasted well beyond the job share.

Here is how it worked: One job-sharer worked solo Monday and Tuesday. The other worked solo Thursday and Friday. We both worked four hours Wednesday, with two hours overlapping so we could compare notes, divide responsibilities, and devise priorities.

The job share brought out our best selves. Our success depended on us supporting each other and communicating well. It was also an invaluable sounding board for challenges at work. Our boss told us we were the most productive “employee,” and we kept each other encouraged and motivated. We did not burn out because the work hours were manageable, and we were grateful to be present for our kids.

In addition to feeling deeply connected to each other, we got the chance to lead fulfilling lives that would have otherwise been out of reach. International affairs were a passion for both of us, but it would have been burdensome to travel to multiple countries if either of us held the job on our own. The childcare logistics alone would have been an obstacle, but because we shared the travel responsibilities, we split the travel, and it was manageable and inspirational. 

We acknowledge that our arrangement may not be feasible in many work situations. When we first floated the idea, many around us thought it would be impossible. And the job share was not without sacrifice. The job share cut our salary in half, and although we could manage it due to working spouses, we also lived modest lifestyles in small apartments and limited budgets. To us, it was worth it to us to scale back our income and live with less. We got to keep a foot firmly planted in our professional careers and develop an incredible partnership.

Eventually as our kids got older, we migrated back to individual careers, but working in partnership nurtured a lasting bond. As the years have passed and babies grew up, we have supported each other through numerous, profound, difficult life events. This has been the most cherished legacy of our job share.

The surgeon general’s report addresses the loneliness phenomenon impacting so many people today. Employers who promote job-sharing as one of the possible options can help with their employees who may be feeling isolated. It can be a lifeline to those dealing with challenging situations in their personal lives.

In closing, we would like to share that one of us wrote the first draft of this article. The other edited and made it better. Neither one of us would have written this article on our own. You will never know who did what because that is the job share way.

Jennifer Donnelly is an analyst in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the State Department.

Amy Rofman is vice president for global strategy at the Warnath Group, an organization specialized in developing customized programs to address human trafficking.