The Pernicious Myth of Working Two Remote Jobs

Working Two Remote Jobs

By Dr Gleb Tsipursky

We all love a good story. Perhaps that’s why entertaining but spurious beliefs have such a strong tendency to take root in the collective psyche of the public at large. If you’ve heard the one about all the remote workers with two jobs, read on.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • The narrative fallacy and availability bias make people susceptible to believing salacious headlines about remote workers holding down two jobs, despite the lack of evidence to support these claims.
  • The Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED) shows that only 0.27% of the US working population hold down two full-time jobs, making the claim that 10% of remote workers do so highly unlikely.
  • Many more people are working remotely now, but the proportion of workers holding down two full-time jobs has not significantly increased, and is still under 0.3%.

“I would bet 10 per cent 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.”

Thus spoke the Chair 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 arrangements1. Having helped 19 organisations 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. That’s what he heard from other board members, and he guesses the same thing goes on here.

Salacious Headlines About Working Two Remote Jobs Fuelling Leadership Mistrust of Remote Work

The employee speaks of the additional money they’re able to secure, which is worth the burdens of working many more hours.

“These people who work from home have a secret: they have two jobs,” screams2 a headline from The Wall Street Journal. The Guardian writes3 that “‘It’s the biggest open secret out there’: the double lives of white-collar workers with two jobs.” And according4 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 tech-related fields, 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 articles play on our narrative fallacy5, a dangerous mental blind spot 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.

Such stories feed into our mind’s availability bias6. 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 stimulated7 by the crime-like elements in these tales.

It’s no surprise that the more traditionalist8 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 the confirmation bias9, 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 the Chair of the Board of the Fortune 1000 tech company.

The Facts About Working Two Remote Jobs

To be clear, I have no personal stake in any specific outcome; my priority is getting the right information to serve10 my clients. That’s why my first source of information for external benchmarks on employment and similar economic data is FRED – Federal Reserve Economic Data11.

FRED gathers a variety of economic data, mainly from US government agencies, as well as other high-quality sources12, to provide long-term trends on the US 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 maximising 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 US workforce from 2000 onward.

As the graph below makes clear, 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 per cent of all workers held multiple jobs. Currently, about 4.8 per cent do so. Just before the pandemic, 5.2 per cent had more than one job.

figure 1
Source: FRED, Multiple Jobholders as a Percent of Employed, 2000 onward

That data encompasses both full-time and part-time jobs. Perhaps the story is different for those holding down full-time jobs? Let’s see what FRED has to say.

figure 2
FRED: Multiple Jobholders, Primary and Secondary Jobs Both Full Time, 2000 onward

Not really. In July 2022, 438,000 workers had two full-time jobs, or 0.27 per cent of the total working population of 163,500,000 this year. That compares to 418,000 in July 2000, or 0.3 per cent 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 per cent theorised 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 data13, 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 0.3 per cent. No, it’s because many more people are working remotely.

Thus, before the pandemic, Stanford University research14 shows that 5 per cent of all workdays were worked remotely. Two years into the pandemic, the comparable number is over 40 per cent of all workdays.

remote work

That’s 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 occur will not change the fact that it’s under 0.3 per cent 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 neglect15, where we focus on individual anecdotes and fail to assess the statistical likelihood of events. Similarly, even though travelling by plane is about 100 times safer16 than driving, the dramatic headlines surrounding plane crashes causes people to neglect statistics and travel by car, leading to many more fatalities.

Indeed, 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 per cent17 to 39 per cent18 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 – 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 research19 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 in 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 survey20on 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 per cent of those working remotely would likely look for another job. Altogether, over three-quarters of all respondents want to work less 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 decided21 in the summer of 2021 on a policy of three days in the office. Once the ISI leadership learned about my work and hired me as a consultant, they shifted in the fall of 2021 to a trust-based, flexible, team-led model22, with individual team leaders deciding together with their team members what worked best for each team.

A survey we conducted in August 2022 showed that, compared to the three days in the office policy, 73 per cent of the employees at ISI believed that the team-led model was “much better”, and 15 per cent felt it was “better”. 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 survey question that research shows reveals this issue, namely whether survey respondents would recommend working at ISI to their peers. In their responses, 56 per cent said that the team-led model made it “much more likely” that they would make this recommendation, and 18 per cent said it would make them “more likely”.

In the end, the Chair of the Board of the Fortune 1000 tech company agreed that the best practice23 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

Dr Gleb Tsipursky

Dr Gleb Tsipursky helps leaders use hybrid work to improve retention and productivity while cutting costs. He serves as the CEO of the boutique future-of-work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts. He is the best-selling author of seven books, including the global best-sellers Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters and The Blindspots Between Us: How to Overcome Unconscious Cognitive Bias and Build Better Relationships. His newest book is Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage. His cutting-edge thought leadership has been featured in over 650 articles and 550 interviews in Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Inc. Magazine, USA Today, CBS News, Fox News, Time, Business Insider, Fortune, and elsewhere. His writing has been translated into Chinese, Korean, German, Russian, Polish, Spanish, French, and other languages. His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training for Fortune 500 companies from Aflac to Xerox, and over 15 years in academia as a behavioural scientist at UNC-Chapel Hill and Ohio State. A proud Ukrainian American, Dr Gleb lives in Columbus, Ohio.

References

  1. Hybrid and Remote Teams, Disaster Avoidance Experts, https://disasteravoidanceexperts.com/hybrid/
  2. These People Who Work From Home Have a Secret: They Have Two Jobs, The Wall Street Journal, 13 April 2021 https://www.wsj.com/articles/these-people-who-work-from-home-have-a-secret-they-have-two-jobs-11628866529
  3. ‘It’s the biggest open secret out there’: the double lives of white-collar workers with two jobs, The Guardian, 16 November 2021 https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2021/nov/16/its-the-biggest-open-secret-out-there-the-double-lives-of-white-collar-workers-with-two-jobs
  4. Many Remote Workers Secretly Juggle Two Full-Time Jobs—or More, Bloomberg, 11 February 2022 https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-02-10/many-remote-workers-are-secretly-juggling-
    two-full-time-jobs-or-more?leadSource=uverify%
    20wall
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  7. Are `Sensational’ News Stories More Likely to Trigger Viewers’ Emotions than Non-Sensational News Stories?: A Content Analysis of British TV News, Sage Journals, 2007 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0267323107076770
  8. Ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt on why in-office work is better: ‘I don’t know how you build great management’ virtually, CNBC, 11 April 2022 https://www.cnbc.com/2022/04/05/ex-google-ceo-eric-schmidt-on-why-people-should-return-to-the-office.html
  9. Varieties of Confirmation Bias, Science Direct, 1995 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0079742108603151
  10. Consulting Services, Disaster Avoidance Experts, https://disasteravoidanceexperts.com/consulting/
  11. FRED Economic Data, Economic Research, https://fred.stlouisfed.org/docs/api/fred/fred.html
  12. FRED Economic Data, Economic Research, https://fred.stlouisfed.org/docs/api/fred/fred.html
  13. The plural of anecdote is data, Kauffman Foundation, 25 April 2016 https://www.kauffman.org/currents/the-plural-of-anecdote-is-data/#:~:text=Anecdotes%2C%20the%20knowing%20narrative%2C%20and,plural%20of%20anecdote%20is%20data.&text=%E2%80%9CThe%20plural%20of%20anecdote%20is,an%20apology%20for%20sloppy%20logic.
  14. Work From Home Is Becoming a Permanent Part of How Jobs Are Done, Bloomberg, 18 January 2022 https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-01- 18/work-from-home-is-becoming-a-permanent-part-of-how-jobs-are-done?leadSource=uverify%20wall
  15. Dominance of accuracy information and neglect of base rates in probability estimation, Science Direct https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0001691876900329
  16. Transportation safety over time: Cars, planes, trains, walking, cycling, The Journalist Resource, 5 October 2014 https://journalistsresource.org/economics/comparing-fatality-risks-united-states-transportation-across-modes-time/
  17. How Many Productive Hours in a Work Day? Just 2 Hours, 23 Minutes…, Voucher Cloud, https://www.vouchercloud.com/resources/office-worker-productivity
  18. Study: 39 Percent of Workday Spent on Actual Work, The Trusted Professional, https://www.nysscpa.org/news/publications/the-trusted-professional/article/study-39-percent-of-workday-spent-on-actual-work-060717
  19. Work rebalanced:The Citrix hybrid work report, Citrix, https://www.citrix.com/fieldwork/flexible-work/citrix-hybrid-work-report.html
  20. The Future of Hybrid Work: 5 Key Questions Answered With Data, Gallup, 15 March 2022 https://www.gallup.com/workplace/390632/future-hybrid-work-key-questions-answered-data.aspx
  21. Testimonial from Dr. Craig Knoblock, ED of USC ISI, for Dr. Gleb Tsipursky’s hybrid work consulting, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PrSbwctaVDg
  22. Best Return to Office Plan: A Team-Led Approach, Disaster Avoidance Experts, 29 June 2021 https://disasteravoidanceexperts.com/best-return-to-office-plan-a-team-led-approach/
  23. Hybrid and Remote Teams, Disaster Avoidance Experts, https://disasteravoidanceexperts.com/hybrid/
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.