This story is from an episode of Woman’s Hour presented by Jenni Murray and produced by Helen Fitzhenry. To listen to more episodes of Woman’s Hour from BBC Radio 4, please click here. Adapted by Sarah Keating.

There is no doubt that we are hurtling into a new world of work. Whether it’s working remotely, part-time, or with flexible hours, the ubiquitous 9 to 5 office job is being overshadowed. Job sharing is one working arrangement that could be part of this paradigm shift. In fact Forbes recently called it “the latest workplace revolution”.

The concept of job sharing – where multiple people share one job – has been around for decades. But in the UK, only 0.4 percent of people work this way. While the majority of managers are open to the idea of flexible working, such as job sharing, they have difficulty understanding how it can work in practice.

Maggy Pigott and Judith Killick job shared for 23 years across seven jobs, a promotion and even a royal honour. Both women wanted more flexibility than their legal careers could afford them, so they moved (separately) into civil service jobs at the criminal appeals office.

“I knew that if I ever had children I wanted to work part-time,” says Pigott. Killick also “wanted to balance children and family so we had very similar motivations and I think that was important.”

They were paid for three days each. Pigott worked Monday to Wednesday while Killick worked Wednesday to Friday, with one day of overlap.

“The overlap on a Wednesday was very important,” says Killick. “To not only tell each other what had been going on but also to work on one of the areas that you couldn’t really divide off.” These included issues concerning their staff or strategy for their role.

The overlap on a Wednesday was very important. To not only tell each other what had been going on but also to work on one of the areas that you couldn’t really divide off - Killick

“You also need to communicate to people around you how the job share is working. How it’s serving those you serve,” Killick adds, whether these are judges or clients. “They would need to understand how it was going to work for them.”

Finding a compatible partner is also vital. “In many ways, that’s probably the hardest thing to achieve,” Killick believes.

“Maggy and I met through working in the same department and we happened to be at the same stage in life, having just had children and wanting to do this.”

But job share partners don’t need to be exactly the same, according to Pigott. “Judith and I are very different people. If you are quite different and if you can complement each other, that’s wonderful because you can play to your strengths and you can help and coach each other on aspects of the job that the other one is better at.”

“But I would say you have to have similar attitudes to work,” she adds. “It wouldn’t work if one of us was a workaholic and the other wasn’t. You also certainly have to have similar attitudes towards leadership and management because you don’t want one playing off against the other.”

It wouldn’t work if one of us was a workaholic and the other wasn’t - Pigott

Being able to trust your job share partner is something they both emphasise. “I had to feel that when I went off on a Wednesday that I could hand over to Judith, not worry, go home think about the kids, or in later life my mum or other interests,” says Pigott. She adds, “whatever Judith does I’m happy to live with and even if I’m not 100 percent happy, I’m happy enough.”

Along with that, Killick says that unpicking what the other person has done should be avoided at all costs. “Don’t go back on anything, always move forward.”

Getting a job share up and running requires time and resources. “Lots of preparation is needed because the biggest thing you’re likely to encounter is that other people can’t imagine how it’s going to work,” says Killick.

“People find it very hard to envisage, so do a lot of preparatory work about how you are going to share it so you can answer those questions.”

Though job sharing is still massively under-utilised, there is an overwhelming appetite for work schedules outside of the traditional model. Consultancy research suggests that while 87% percent of people in the UK would prefer to work flexibly, the availability of flexible jobs is still hugely lacking at only 11%. Nearly half of these jobs are part-time. Men also want to work flexibly, but they may benefit from it less than women, who face the obvious discrimination of having the greater share of caring responsibilities.

According to Maggy Pigott, who trained middle managers to help them get over hostility to the idea, “unless you’ve seen a job share work, you can think of all the reasons it wouldn’t work… once you see it in action and see that it actually can work seamlessly then that fear of the unknown goes.”

One such example was how the pair approached applying for a promotion to a senior civil servant position. “We were the first people to do it,” says Killick, “and I remember receiving a phone call from our HR department saying, ‘How do you think we should interview you?’”

Not having experience in doing it herself, Killick made up her response on the spot. She suggested that HR interview herself and Pigott individually to see if they were up to the job, but also see them together to assess their chemistry. And that became the model for job sharing interviews.  

But with HR having to, in this case, do three job interviews for the same candidate(s), is it more hassle than it’s worth?

As Pigott and Killick found, the benefits to a company and to employees can be great. “We know now that job shares are more productive,” Killick says, with research showing that senior-level job shares can increase productivity by up to 30%.

“I don’t think we were doing twice as much work but I certainly think our jobs expanded as we did them because there were two minds on it. You get two heads for the price of one.”

Pigott says that after they started job sharing, people started to accept it as normal. And that normalisation is key to its success.

“Ideally you’d have some dedicated resource in HR who would be looking out for people who want to job share and encourage them to meet and see if you could make it work,” Killick suggests. Job adverts mentioning roles’ suitability for job sharing would also help push past the default assumption of one employee for one job.

Killick and Pigott are retired now, having both received special honours from the Queen of England in the form of a CBE. And if you’re still sceptical about whether two heads really are better than one at work, the women were replaced by two full timers when they left.

Pigott is hugely grateful to have had a fulfilling career which wouldn’t have been possible if she hadn’t job shared.

“With part-time work the opportunities for promotion are less. With job shares you can have those mainstream, high-profile jobs and that was a great privilege,” she says.

But Killick admits they did feel the weight of responsibility to make it work. “We didn’t feel that the people around us should find life more difficult because we were job sharing so we did feel that we had to put in that extra effort.” The pair also spent time publicising their unconventional arrangement and networking with people who were interested in job sharing.

As Pigott says, “In this world of 24/7 availability, to have a job share where you have time off to do other things is just wonderful and gives you that work-life balance.”

To comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Capital, please head over to our Facebook  page or message us on Twitter.

If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called "If You Only Read 6 Things This Week". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.