Secretarial: Nightmare of a job share

The Temp
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The Independent Culture
GREAT IDEAS of the 20th century: the job share. Great because it allows those people who would otherwise have to decide between career and family to remain part of the economy. Great because it helps the workforce be more flexible, learn new skills, move up to new levels without having to take on all the stresses unaccompanied. Great because many jobs don't fit into the 48-hour-a-week maximum and, while an employee can cope with being overworked for a while, they will eventually either start making mistakes or leave. Part-time workers are, on the whole, less tired and more willing than full-time ones, and therefore represent better value for money: great for employers.

So much for the theory. Now for the practice. My two bosses, Jasper and Philippa, share a desk and two-fifths, working seven days between them over five days. So far so good. They have two crossover days each week to keep each other up to speed, but somehow each spends the time when they are in sole charge cursing the other.

I am still certain job sharing could work, but only if employers remember the following: office politics don't come from jobs, they come from people. If one reckons on x amount of politics from a single individual in a job, one should reckon on x2 when there are two people doing it. If you are considering allowing two people to share a job, you should ensure that they have roughly similar or, at least complementary, personalities.

Jasper is an ambitious, networky public schoolboy with a natural tendency to delegate; Philippa is a resentful control freak. Jasper's life in dormitories has taught him to be scrupulously neat. Philippa's desire to be indispensable, and her territorial instincts, lead her to scatter everything in seemingly random fashion about the place. Jasper's mind is more on the jobs he hopes to have in the future than the one in hand. Philippa has children. Their priorities couldn't be more unevenly matched.

What happens is this: Monday morning, Philippa rushes in, pink from the school run and the traffic, looks at the primary desk, spotless, with a Post-it note pasted to the computer screen, goes pinker and says, in a voice that sounds uncannily like Victor Meldrew, "I don't believe it". I will look up from the sanctuary of my desk and say "What?", and she'll go: "He's done it again. He's gone and put everything away. I'll never find it now. And look at this."

She will brandish the note, which will say something like: "Dear Philippa, didn't quite finish up the presentation on the chocolate account. It's due on Tuesday."

So Philippa will go Jurassic, shouting, "What does he think I am, his slave?" bang her way through the drawers, get out all the requisite bits of paper and scatter them over the top. "I'll never get it all done now," she will snarl before settling down and finishing off the presentation anyway. "This time I'm going to bloody say something. As her three-and- a-half days of tenure wear away, the desk heaps itself silently with more and more stuff: photos of the kids, publicity releases, library books, flow charts, chocolate wrappers. After her bad start, everything will be done at the last minute. She will seethe with resentment.

When himself comes in on Tuesday afternoon she will be scowling. She cheers up a bit on Wednesday and is positively angelic by Thursday, with the prospect of a three-and-a-half day weekend ahead. Jasper, meanwhile, arrives smiling on Tuesday, his face drops as he encounters Philippa's mood, he settles down to wander the office making friends and influencing people while she growls imprecations about his networking habits. And neither says a word about their problems. In fact, they gossip and plot about the political developments about them as though they are the best of friends.

But Jasper has plenty to say come lunchtime Thursday as he surveys the desk space. "Good god," he says. "Doesn't she put anything away?" Then he starts swearing as he ploughs through the piles of paper, sorting them into piles and tutting as he opens the filing drawers. "It's going to take me all afternoon to get this done," he grumbles. "Doesn't she realise I've got better things to do than clean up after her? Christ, I'm never going to get that presentation done now. I swear, I'm going to say something next week."