• | 5:30 pm

We need to break the pernicious myth of the two-timing remote employee

According to future of work consultant Gleb Tsipursky PhD, there’s a better way to lead teams than buying into the myth that if you can’t see them, they must be working for someone else.

We need to break the pernicious myth of the two-timing remote employee
[Source photo: mustafahacalaki/Getty Images]

“I would bet 10% or more of our remote staff, especially programmers, have another full-time job! We need to stop this before it escalates and get everyone back to the office.”

So said the chairperson of the board of a Fortune 1000 tech company when I met with the board to help them figure out the company’s plans for permanent post-pandemic work arrangements. Having helped 19 organizations determine their hybrid and remote work plans, I heard such sentiments all too often.

So I asked him where he got his information. He told me he sits on other company boards and that’s what he heard from other members, and guesses the same thing goes on here.

SALACIOUS HEADLINES FUEL LEADERS’ MISTRUST OF REMOTE WORK

“These People Who Work From Home Have a Secret: They Have Two Jobs,” screams a headline from The Wall Street JournalThe Guardian writes “It’s the Biggest Open Secret Out There: The Double Lives of White-Collar Workers With Two Jobs.” And according to Bloomberg, “Many Remote Workers Secretly Juggle Two Full-Time Jobs—or More.”

These articles, and many others like themsimilar ones, mostly have a similar structure. The journalist interviews an anonymous remote employee, usually in a tech-related field, about how they managed to secure a second job working remotely. The employee speaks of the additional money they’re able to secure, which is worth the burdens of working many more hours. There are often exciting and dramatic escapades of how they just managed to avoid getting caught. At times, there are cautionary tales of workers who were found out—and fired.

These types of reports play on our narrative fallacy, a dangerous mental blindspot that causes us to understand the world through stories, rather than facts. Sure, stories can be useful illustrations of broader data points. But the danger stems from stories that speak to our feelings and intuitions, without regard for the actual evidence.

They also feed into our mind’s availability bias. This cognitive bias refers to the fact that we tend to pay attention to the information that’s most available in our memory. Such salience occurs because these story-based articles arouse our emotions, which are especially stimulated by the crime-like elements in these tales.

It’s no surprise that the more traditionalist executives and board members who read these narratives integrate these stories into their vision of reality. After all, one of our most fundamental cognitive biases is confirmation bias, our mind’s predisposition to look for information that confirms our beliefs, regardless of whether the information matches the facts. They latch on to such stories and then repeat them in C-suite and board meetings, as did that board chair.

LOOK AT FACTUAL DATA ON MULTIPLE JOBS

To be clear, I have no personal stake in any specific outcome: my priority is getting the right information to serve my clients. That’s why my first source of information for external benchmarks on employment and similar economic data is the Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED).

FRED gathers a variety of data, mainly from U.S. government agencies as well as other high-quality sources, to provide long-term trends on the U.S. economy. FRED’s goals are to provide the most accurate information possible, so that everyone from the Federal Reserve to the executives at Fortune 1000 companies to the founders of start-ups can make the best business decisions, thus maximizing government tax revenue. FRED has no interest or stake in promoting in-office, hybrid, or remote work.

So let’s consider the data on multiple jobholders as a percentage of all employed members of the U.S. workforce from 2000 onward.

We’re at a historically low point of employees holding multiple jobs. The high point was around the turn of the century when 5.8% of all workers held multiple jobs. Currently, about 4.8% do so. Just before the pandemic, 5.2% had more than one job.

That data encompasses both full-time and part-time jobs. Perhaps the story isn’t different for those holding down full-time jobs. Yet the data shows that 438,000 workers had two full-time jobs in July 2022. That translates to .27% of the total working population of 163,500,000 this year. That compares to 418,000 in July 2000 or just .3% of the total workforce of 138,800,000 that year.

So while we’re not at a particularly historically low point of workers holding down two full-time jobs, we’re just about average and the 10% that the board chair estimated is much more than an order of magnitude too high.

CONTEXT FOR ANECDOTAL EVIDENCE

What about all these anecdotes reflected in the headlines? Isn’t the plural of anecdote said to be data, the board chair asked me.

The reality is that it’s true that many more remote workers are holding down two full-time jobs than in the past. Yet it’s not because the proportion increased: it’s still under .3%. No, it’s because many more people are working remotely.

Before the pandemic, Stanford University research shows that 5% of all workdays were done remotely. Two years into the pandemic, that number is over 40% or over eight times more. Thus, of the tiny fraction of all employees who hold down two full-time jobs, a much larger proportion will be remote. So we’ll certainly hear more stories about it.

But the fact that more such incidents will occur will not change the fact that it’s still under .3% of all workers. All those breathless headlines about two-timing remote workers and the traditionalist executives who buy into them ignore the underlying probabilistic base rate, which is the actual likelihood of this scenario.

That’s a cognitive bias known as base rate neglect, where we focus on individual anecdotes and fail to assess the statistical likelihood of events. Similarly, even though traveling by plane is about 100 times safer than driving, the drama of breathless headlines surrounding plane crashes causes people to neglect statistics and travel by car, leading to many more fatalities.

What executives often miss is that many of the employees who held down two full-time jobs before the pandemic did so from the office. Do you think people work a full eight-hour day when they come in? Far from it. Research finds that on average, employees work from 36% to 39% of the time they’re in the office. The rest is spent on things like making non-work calls, reading social media and news websites, and even looking for—or working on—other jobs.

TRUST YOUR STAFF

If you can’t trust a worker to work well remotely, you can’t trust them to work well in the office. And recent research by Citrix on knowledge workers whose jobs can be done remotely full-time shows that those forced to come to the office full-time have the least amount of trust in their employers, compared to hybrid or full-time remote workers. No wonder. Their bosses are showing a deep-rooted mistrust by forcing them to come to the office full-time when their job can be done mostly or even fully remotely.

If that mutual trust between employer and employee is absent, the employee will disengage. A Gallup survey on hybrid and remote work reveals that, when employees are required to work on-site, but they both can and would prefer to do their job in a remote or mostly -remote manner, the result is significantly lower engagement and well-being, and significantly higher levels of burnout and intent to leave. In fact, if the employer took away the option of remote work, 54% of those working remotely would likely look for another job. Altogether, over three-fourths of all respondents want to work fewerless than three days per week in the office.

Internal surveys from my clients align with these external surveys. For example, the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute (ISI), a research institution with over 400 staff, originally decided in the summer of 2021 on a policy of three days in the office. They shifted in the fall of 2021 to a trust-based, flexible, team-led model.

In the end, the board chair of the Fortune 1000 tech company agreed that the best practice for the future of work is a collaborative, trust-based approach. Show trust to your employees, and they will trust you in turn. Accommodate their working styles and preferences, and they will repay you with higher engagement, productivity, and loyalty. And make decisions using data, not stories.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gleb Tsipursky, PhD, is the CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts. He is the author of seven7 books, including Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage. More

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