Thursday, June 20, 2024

Debunking the Headlines on Workers With Two Remote Jobs

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The chair of the board of a Fortune 1000 tech company said to me, “I would bet 10 percent or more of our remote staff, especially programmers, are working two remote jobs! We need to stop this before it escalates and get everyone back to the office.”

Salacious headlines about working two remote jobs fueling leadership mistrust of remote work have included the following: “These People Who Work From Home Have a Secret: They Have Two Jobs,” screams a headline from The Wall Street Journal. The Guardian writes that “‘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 similar 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.

FRED gathers a variety of economic 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 what does FRED tell us? Let’s consider the data on multiple jobholders as a percentage of all employed members of the U.S. workforce from 2000 onward. FRED showed that 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 percent of all workers held multiple jobs. Currently, about 4.8 percent do so. Just before the pandemic, 5.2 percent had more than one job.

Those data encompass both full-time and part-time jobs. Perhaps the story is different for those holding down full-time jobs? According to FRED, not really. In July 2022, 438,000 workers had two full-time jobs, or .27 percent of the total working population of 163,500,000 this year. That compares to 418,000 in July 2000, or .3 percent 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 percent theorized by the chair of the board is much more than an order of magnitude too high.

But What About All the Anecdotes About Working Two Remote Jobs?

What about all these anecdotes reflected in the headlines? Isn’t the plural of anecdote said to be data, the chair of the board asked me? Well, 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 percent. No—it’s because many more people are working remotely.

Thus, before the pandemic, Stanford University research shows that 5 percent of all workdays were worked remotely. Two years into the pandemic, the comparable number is more than 30 percent of all workdays.

That’s more than six 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 under .3 percent 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, meaning the actual likelihood of this scenario.

That’s a cognitive bias known as the 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.

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—employees whose job can be done full time remotely—shows that knowledge workers forced to come to the office full time show the least amount of trust to their employers, compared to hybrid or full-time remote workers. No wonder: Their bosses are showing deep-rooted mistrust of their employees 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 percent of those working remotely would likely look for another job. Altogether, more than three-fourths of all respondents want to work fewer than three days per week in the office.

In the end, the chair of the board 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.

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