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Husband and wife team up for job sharing

Barbara and Nikolas Gonzenbach are both Deputy Head of Mission at the Embassy of Switzerland in Singapore.

Barbara and Nikolas take care of the day-to-day business of the embassy. While Nikolas covers business relations, science, diplomacy and legal affairs, Barbara focuses on finance, communications, security and culture.

A HUSBAND and wife team sharing one job position may be new to Singapore but it is a fairly well established practice in Switzerland's foreign ministry, which probably can claim credit as one of the most progressive organisations in the world when it comes to job sharing by couples. It is another distinctive feather in Switzerland's cap as a pioneering and innovative country.

Barbara Gonzenbach, 42, and Nikolas Stürchler Gonzenbach, 43, are both Deputy Head of Mission at the Embassy of Switzerland in Singapore, reporting to Ambassador Fabrice Filliez. They have two children, Julian, 10, and Leonie, 8, and the job sharing is a great boon to them.

On the one hand, they have professional satisfaction furthering the agenda of their government, and on the other hand, they have plenty of family time. Their home is in the Swiss embassy compound and the children go to the Swiss School, which is almost next door to the embassy.

Says Barbara: "Nikolas and I together are the number two at the embassy, formally called Deputy Head of Mission. We have an elaborate weekly schedule that allows both of us to work in the morning and in the afternoon, so that each of us can be in touch with headquarters due to time difference and spend time with the children at home. We both go to the office every day, so our staff does not have to wait for inputs and direction. We have a fantastic team, the Singapore MFA is very efficient to work with and the topics we work on are captivating."

Adds Nikolas: "We both take the responsibility to look after the day-to-day business of the embassy, giving support to the ambassador. Broadly speaking, our job is to look after the bilateral relations between Singapore and Switzerland and represent Swiss interests in this regard. This can range from political reporting or organising official visits to social media communications, bringing together scientific actors or lining up cultural events. Barbara and I jointly head our so-called political team that looks after such matters."

The couple has a rough division of work in place. While Nikolas covers business relations, science, diplomacy and legal affairs, Barbara focuses on finance, communications, security and culture. In other areas such as political reporting, they check on an ad hoc basis as to who has capacity and how they want to organise themselves.

Says Nikolas: "Working in Singapore is a joy for me because there is so much to learn both about Singapore and the region. Reportedly, Switzerland was a model for Singapore in terms of economic development. Nowadays, there is also a lot we can learn from Singapore. It is absolutely fascinating to learn how things are done here and why. My mother was born and raised in Jakarta. While Singapore is not Jakarta and times are very different, I nonetheless feel as if I am tapping into a part of my mother's background."

Barbara and Nikolas met during their diplomatic training in Switzerland when they were both recruited in the same batch of 25 diplomats in 2007.

"It was like winning the jackpot. Not only did we get a compelling and fulfilling job, but at the same time we met our lifetime partner. The icing on the cake was that the FDFA (Federal Department of Foreign Affairs) has a very progressive policy when it comes to couples in the diplomatic service. Our first shared posting abroad was at the Permanent Mission of Switzerland to the United Nations in New York from 2010 to 2014," says Barbara. Interestingly, their predecessors in New York were also a couple.

Adds Nikolas: "The Swiss MFA is very forthcoming and progressive, so that is very helpful. It is also a fact that while Switzerland has around 170 representations abroad (embassies, permanent missions/delegations and representations, consulates general and Swiss Development cooperation offices), many of them are small or mid-sized. There are only so many full-time jobs at an embassy. Since we rotate from post to post as a family, if you think about it, job-sharing is quite a natural arrangement. We share the same office and support staff but have our own desks and computers."

Depending on the circumstances, the couple divides up the different topics and directly lead different people. The beauty of the arrangement is that they get to enjoy their job and family in a most fulfilling way.

Says Barbara: "If there is an urgency or an intensive period at the embassy, we can both double our capacities, which is definitely a plus for the organisation. Also, we both bring along quite some experience from the 13 years we have been working in the FDFA. We feel that our different personalities lead to great outcomes and a happy team. The circuit breaker has been a challenge when we had to become the teachers of our children at the same time as managing a great workload at the embassy".

Adds Nikolas: "Job sharing entails that we are a mini-team of our own, jointly looking after the work that needs to be done. This requires some coordination and understanding on the part of others, but once you and others get the hang of it, there are many benefits for all involved. Each of us brings a different set of experiences and expertise to our work, which means that we can jointly draw upon a much wider range of knowledge and skills.

"At work, we tend to be more resourceful and focused because each one of us only shoulders half of the daily onslaught of incoming tasks. We have more surge capacity. If more resources are needed at a short notice such as in relation to Covid-19, we can be flexible and put in more hours. The benefits for us are equally great. We get to spend time with our kids. We both enjoy our careers and are avoiding the 'trailing spouse' phenomenon, where one half of the couple is following the career lead of the other. For sure, we highly recommend job sharing!

"In our daily work, we try to be disciplined with ourselves in delineating clearly when we are on duty or off duty. Of course, situations can and do arise when we face competing demands from family and the office, but then who doesn't? In such cases, we simply discuss the best way forward, among ourselves and with the embassy colleagues, and figure out the best way to manage. So far, we have always found a solution. We are extremely fortunate that Ambassador Filliez is understanding and accommodating when needed. The embassy staff is also very forthcoming. We greatly appreciate this. It's the mark of a progressive and open approach to the work place."

A big plus for Barbara and Nikolas sharing a job is that they are able to take leave together just as one person does. This enables them to go on family holidays. "Once a year we usually go to Switzerland to see family and friends and catch up with what's going on in Bern. We usually spend most of our time there in the mountains, where we can go for long hikes and tremendously enjoy the pristine air," says Barbara.

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