A pervasive myth that employers believe is hurting their remote workforce

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“I’d bet 10% or more of our remote staff, especially programmers, have other full-time jobs! We need to stop this before it gets out of hand and get everyone back to the office,” my client exclaimed. .

He’s chairman of the board of a late-stage SaaS startup, and that concern was prevalent when I met with the rest of the board to determine the company’s plan for permanent working arrangements. after the pandemic. Having helped 19 organizations determine their hybrid and remote work plans, I have heard such sentiments too often.

So I asked him where he got his information from. He told me he sits on the board of other companies: That’s what he’s heard from other board members, and he assumes the same thing is happening here.

But where does this distrust of teleworkers come from?

Salacious headlines are fueling executive mistrust of remote work

“These people who work from home have a secret: they have two jobs”, shouts a title of The Wall Street Journal. The white-collar double life with two jobs,” writes The Guardian. And according to Bloomberg“Many remote workers are secretly juggling two full-time jobs — or more.”

These articles, and many others like them, have mostly a similar structure. The reporter interviews an anonymous remote employee, usually in tech-related fields, about how he managed to get a second job while working remotely. The employee talks about the extra money he is able to get, which is worth the burden of working many more hours. There are often exciting and dramatic escapades about how they managed to avoid getting caught. Sometimes there are cautionary tales of workers who have been discovered – and fired.

These types of articles play on our narrative fallacy, a dangerous mental blind spot that leads us to understand the world through stories rather than facts. Of course, stories can be helpful illustrations of larger data points. But the danger comes from stories that speak to our feelings and intuitions without considering the real evidence.

It’s no surprise that the most traditionalist executives and board members who read these stories incorporate these stories into their view of reality. After all, one of our most fundamental cognitive biases is confirmation bias, the predisposition of our mind to seek out information that confirms our beliefs, whether or not that information matches the facts. They latch onto such stories and then repeat them at C-suite and board meetings — just like the chairman of the board of the SaaS startup I mentioned earlier.

The facts about moonlighting

To be clear, I have no personal interest in any specific outcome. As a behavioral economist who helps leaders avoid cognitive biases, my priority is getting the right information to serve my clients. That’s why my first source of information for external references on employment and similar economic data is FRED: Federal Reserve Economic Data.

FRED collates a variety of economic data, primarily from US government agencies as well as other high-quality sources, to provide long-term trends in the US economy. FRED has no interest or interest in promoting in-office, hybrid or remote working. Consider multi-worker data as a percentage of all employed members of the U.S. workforce from 2000.

According to the latest figures, we are at an all-time low of multi-job employees. The peak occurred at the turn of the century, when 5.8% of all workers held multiple jobs. Currently, about 4.8% do. Just before the pandemic, 5.2% had more than one job. These data include both full-time and part-time jobs.

Maybe the story is different for those with full-time jobs? According to FRED, not really. In July 2022, 438,000 workers had two full-time jobs, or 0.27% of the total US labor force of 163,500,000 that year. Now compare that number to 418,000 in July 2000, or 0.3% of the total workforce of 138,800,000 that year. So while we’re not at an all-time low of working two full-time jobs, we’re about average – and the 10% theorized by the chairman of the board is much more than a order of magnitude too high.

But what about all the anecdotes?

What about all those anecdotes reflected in the headlines? Well, the reality is that it’s true that far more remote workers are working two full-time jobs than in the past. However, this is not because the proportion has increased: it is still below 0.3%. No, it’s because a lot more people are working remotely.

So, before the pandemic, research from Stanford University shows that 5% of all workdays were done remotely. More than two years into the pandemic, the comparable number is over 40% of all working days. It is more than 8 times more. Thus, of the tiny fraction of all employees who work two full-time jobs, a much larger proportion will be remote. So we will definitely hear more stories about it.

But the fact that more such incidents will occur will not change the fact that it is less than 0.3% of all workers. All of those gasping headlines about two-stroke remote workers — and the traditionalist executives who buy into them — ignore the underlying probabilistic base rate, meaning the actual likelihood of this scenario. This is a cognitive bias known as base rate neglect, where we focus on individual anecdotes and do not assess the statistical likelihood of events.

Indeed, what executives often miss is that many of the employees who worked two full-time jobs before the pandemic did so from the office. Do you think people work a full eight hour day when they arrive? Far from there! Research shows that, on average, employees work 36% to 39% of their time 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 for – other jobs.

Trust your staff

If you can’t trust an employee to work well remotely, you can’t trust them to work well in the office. And a recent Citrix study of knowledge workers — in other words, employees whose work can be done full-time remotely — shows that knowledge workers who are forced to come to the office full-time trust the least. to their employers, compared to hybrids. or full-time teleworkers. No wonder: their bosses show a deep-rooted distrust of their employees by forcing them to come into the office full-time when their work can be done mostly or even entirely remotely.

If this mutual trust between employer and employee is absent, the employee will disengage. A Gallup survey of hybrid and remote working finds that when employees are required to work on-site, but both can and prefer to do their jobs remotely or primarily remotely, the result is engagement and good -to be significantly lower, and significantly higher levels of burnout and intention to leave.

My clients’ internal surveys align with these external surveys. For example, the Information Science Institute (ISI) at the University of Southern California, a research institution with more than 400 employees, initially decided in the summer of 2021 on a three-day policy at desk. Once ISI management heard about my work and hired me as a consultant, they transitioned in fall 2021 to a trust-based, flexible, and team-driven model, chief executives. individual team deciding with their team members what worked best for each. crew.

A survey we conducted in August 2022 showed that, compared to the three days in office policy, 73% of ISI employees thought the team-led model was “much better” and 15% felt that he was “better”. These responses show a much higher degree of employee satisfaction and engagement due to flexibility and trust. The same goes for retention and recruitment, on a survey question that research suggests reveals this issue, namely whether survey respondents would recommend working at ISI to their peers. 56% said the team-led model made it “much more likely” that they would make this recommendation, and 18% said it would make them “more likely”.

Ultimately, the late-stage SaaS startup’s board chairman agreed that the best practice for the future of work is a collaborative and trust-based approach. Trust your employees, and they will trust you. Consider their work styles and preferences, and they will reward you with higher engagement, productivity, and loyalty. And finally, make decisions using data – not stories.

Michael A. Bynum