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“I bet 10% or more of our remote workers, especially programmers, still have full-time jobs! We need to stop this before it escalates and get everyone back to the office,” my client exclaimed.
He is the chairman of the board of a late-stage SaaS startup, and this concern was high when I met the rest of the board to discuss the company’s plan for permanent post-pandemic work arrangements. After helping 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 from. He told me he’s on other boards: he’s heard that from other board members, and he suspects the same thing is going on here.
But where does this distrust of teleworkers come from?
Filthy headlines fueling leadership’s mistrust of remote working
“These people who work from home have a secret: they have two jobs,” screams a cup of The Wall Street Journal. The double life of two-job white-collar workers”, writes the guard. And according to until Bloomberg“Many remote workers secretly juggle two full-time jobs — or more.”
These articles, and many similar ones, usually have a similar structure. The journalist interviews an anonymous remote worker, usually in technology-related fields, about how they managed to land a second remote job. The employee talks about the extra money they can get, which is worth the expense of working many more hours. There are often tense and dramatic escapades about how they just managed to avoid getting caught. Sometimes there are cautionary tales of workers being discovered — and fired.
Articles like this tap into our narrative fallacy, a dangerous mental blind spot that allows us to understand the world through stories rather than facts. Of course, stories can be useful illustrations of broader data points. But the danger comes from stories that speak to our feelings and intuitions without regard for the actual evidence.
It’s no surprise that the more traditionalist executives and board members who read these stories integrate these stories into their vision of reality. After all, one of our most fundamental cognitive biases is the confirmation preference, the predisposition of our mind to seek information that confirms our beliefs, whether or not the information matches the facts. They cling to such stories and then repeat them in C-suite and board meetings — just like the chairman of the board of the SaaS startup I mentioned earlier.
The facts about working with multiple jobs
To be clear, I have no personal interest in any specific outcome. As a behavioral economist who helps executives avoid cognitive biases, my priority is to get the right information to serve my clients. That is why FRED is my first source of information for external benchmarks on employment and comparable economic data: Federal Reserve Economic Data.
FRED collects a variety of economic data, primarily from US government agencies and other high-value sources, to reflect long-term trends in the US economy. FRED has no interest or interest in promoting office, hybrid or remote work. Let’s look at the multiple job holder data as a percentage of all employed members of the U.S. workforce as of 2000.
According to the latest songs, we are at an all-time low of multi-job workers. The peak was around the turn of the century when 5.8% of all workers had multiple jobs. Currently, about 4.8% do so. Just before the pandemic, 5.2% had more than one job. That data includes both full-time and part-time jobs.
Perhaps the story is different for those who have full-time jobs? According to FRED, not really. In July 2022, 438,000 workers were in two full-time jobs — that’s 0.27% of the total US workforce of 163.5 million this year. Now compare that number to 418,000 in July 2000, in other words, 0.3% of the total workforce of 138.8 million that year. So while we’re not at a particularly historic low of employees with two full-time jobs, we’re about average — and the 10% theorized by the chairman of the board is far more than an order of magnitude too high.
But what about all the anecdotes?
What about all these anecdotes reflected in the headlines? Well, the reality is that it is true that many more remote workers have two full-time jobs than in the past. However, it is not because the share has increased: it is still less than 0.3 percent. No, that’s because many more people are working remotely.
So, before the pandemic, Stanford University Research shows that 5% of all working days were worked remotely. More than two years after the pandemic, the comparable number is over 40% of all working days. That is more than 8 times more. Of the small fraction of all employees who have two full-time jobs, a much larger part will therefore be far away. So we will definitely hear more stories about it.
But the fact that there will be more such incidents does not change the fact that it is less than 0.3 percent of all employees. All those breathless headlines about bipartisan remote workers — and the traditionalist executives who believe in it — ignore the underlying probabilistic base rate, meaning the true likelihood of this scenario. That’s a cognitive bias known as the base rate neglectwhere we focus on individual anecdotes and don’t judge the statistical probability of events.
Indeed, what executives often miss is that many of the workers who had two full-time jobs before the pandemic were doing so from the office. Do you think people work a full eight-hour day when they come in? far from! Research shows that on average employees work from: 36% until 39% of the time they are in the office. The rest is spent on things like calling outside of work, reading social media and news websites, and even looking for — or working — other jobs.
Trust your staff
If you can’t trust an employee to work well remotely, you can’t rely on him or her to work well in the office. And recent research by Citrix on knowledge workers — in other words, employees whose work can be done full-time remotely — shows that knowledge workers forced to come to the office full-time have the least confidence in their employers, compared to hybrid or full-time remote workers. employees. No wonder, their bosses show a deep-seated distrust of their employees by forcing them to come to the office full-time when most of their work can be done remotely or even completely.
If that mutual trust between employer and employee is lacking, the employee will withdraw. A Gallup questionnaire On hybrid and remote working, when employees have to work on location, but they both can and want to do their work remotely or mostly remotely, the result is significantly lower engagement and well-being, and significantly higher levels of burnout and intention to leave.
Internal investigations of my clients are in line with these external investigations. For example, the Information Sciences Institute (ISI) at the University of Southern California, a research institution with more than 400 employees, originally decided in the summer of 2021 on a three-day office policy. Once the ISI leadership learned of my work and hired me as a consultant, they switched to a trust-based, flexible, team-driven modelwhere individual team leaders and their team members decide what worked best for each team.
A survey we conducted in August 2022 found that, compared to the three days in office policy, 73% of ISI employees felt the team-driven model is “much better” and 15% felt it was “better ‘ used to be. These responses show a much higher degree of employee satisfaction and engagement through flexibility and trust. The same goes for retention and recruitment, on a research question that research shows this issue, which is whether survey respondents would recommend their colleagues to work at ISI. 56% said the team-led model makes it “much more likely” that they would make this recommendation, and 18% said it would make them “more likely”.
In the end, the chairman of the board of the late-stage SaaS startup agreed that the best exercise for the future of work is a collaborative, trust-based approach. Show trust to your employees, and they will trust you in turn. Adjust their work styles and preferences, and they will repay you with greater engagement, productivity and loyalty. And finally, make decisions using data, not stories.