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The hidden reason people don’t want to go back to the office

Fast Company logo Fast Company 2/2/2022 James R. Bailey

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article showing that some “homers”—those who eschew the office and prefer to work from home—have a secret: They have two jobs. The demands of working a full-time job from home were apparently not enough to prevent some from taking on an extra one.  

A troubling example is that a Washington DC assistant principal was found also working as a principal in Rhode Island. Nobody noticed a performance decline. Indeed, he was praised for his skills. His moonlighting was duplicity against the citizens—parents and students alike—of Washington and Providence. The DC Board of Ethics is taking this so seriously that in addition to dismissal, thousands of dollars in fines and a year in jail are pending.  

Working a second job is nothing new. Moonlighting is as old as moonlight. Most who moonlight are hovering around federally defined livable wages and are disproportionally women and single parents. These people need the extra funds.  

That’s not the case with today’s remote workers. Ziprecruiter reports that remote workers make $66,000 annually on average, far above the livable wage. The WSJ reports that those they interviewed are on track to make $200,000 to $600,000 per year with that extra job.  This is fundamentally different than someone who labors in landscaping during the day and in restaurant kitchens in the evening.  

Homers are taking advantage of the situation.  

How is this possible? Maybe it is the lack of supervision. Remote is hard to manage, much less lead. Virtual leadership is a mystery. The nature of remote work allows for minimally acceptable performance and weak enforcement means. There is no readily available mechanism for supervisors to insist on excellence or assign ancillary tasks. And, there’s no compelling evidence that remote work is as productive as office work. Remote workers can phone (Zoom) it in. 

If people with well-paid remote jobs can pull moonlighting off, why not seek another job? Why not increase income? That’s only rational. Self-interest is a powerful motivator.  

So that’s why and how homers are moonlighting. But how common is it? Do moonlighters think it affects their performance?  

I posed two questions on Amazon Mechanical Turk (Mturk) and got 1,022 qualified respondents. All were full-time office employees—not independent proprietors or consultants—that had worked at least 80% from home since April 2020. The average age was 34, with the range of 26 to 44. Fifty-eight percent were men and 42% were women. These demographics are perfectly compatible with a recent study reported by Fast Company that found that the Millennial generation was more opposed to returning to the office than the other two generations that occupy the workforce—Gen X and Boomers.  

The first question was:

Have you taken on work outside your primary job since working remotely? If so, how many hours per week on average?  

Here are the results: 

Fifty-seven percent of remote employees are only doing their primary job. They’re plenty busy. A fair number, 18%, report some moonlighting that they might have engaged in before working remotely. Maybe those hours come from entrepreneurs who recruited some part-time talent. A strong percentage (13%) admits to working 10 to 20 hours for another company. Perhaps that moonlighting is labors of love. Eight percent say they work 20-30 hours outside their primary job. Four percent reported working two jobs.  

Twelve percent of respondents are working 20 or more hours for a company other than their primary employers.  

The second question was:

To what extent do you believe the extra work you’ve taken on negatively affects your performance on your primary job? 

It was framed by a 1-5 scale: 1 = not at all; 2 = a little; 3 = to some extent; 4 = noticeable and; 5 = seriously.  

Here are the results:

Those who don’t work outside their primary office answered 1, “not at all,” of course. Those who worked five to 10 hours outside the office felt their performance suffered “a little.” Those who were sidelining 10-20 hours a week acknowledged some performance decline, averaging somewhere between “a little” and “to some extent.”  The 20-30 hours crowd weighed in at 3.1, admitting more than noticeable performance declines. Those working 40 or more hours in addition to their primary job responded almost identically to those moonlighting 20-30 hours in addition to their primary job.  

What is going on here? We would expect a clear ascending pattern of perceived performance decline from fewer to more hours worked outside the primary job. That pattern holds true through those who moonlight 20-30 hours but doesn’t increase for moonlighting 30 or more outside of their primary job.  

It should be that the more one works outside of their primary job, the more one believes their performance is negatively affected. That just makes sense. It turns out that’s only true up to a point. There is just one explanation that captures these results: When double the work is taken on, the less one believes their performance is adversely affected. The explanation here comes from research into cognitive dissonance, which reasons the harder one works, the more they value the pursuit because they have to justify the effort. It’s a “sunk costs” or “escalation of commitment” phenomenon. 

So, people acknowledge performance decline the more they moonlight, but only up to a point. Interesting. Up to 30 hours a week, respondents agreed their performance suffered. After that, respondents believe their performance wasn’t affected. Either they have really easy primary jobs, or they’re working some mental gymnastics to rationalize what they’re doing.  

This research punctures a widely held myth: that remote workers are using any extra time to better themselves. They aren’t all exercising or planting gardens or painting or digging Koi ponds. They’re working. Often a second job. Not necessarily to benefit their primary employer or their primary colleagues, but to benefit their own pocketbooks.  

Sure, homers would like some extra scratch. Why not? Maybe they’re bored and have too much time on their hands. Maybe this extra work provides a needed challenge or an escape from the pandemic’s purgatory.  

And maybe it’s raw opportunism.  

It appears that the day of employee loyalty is long gone. Loyalty has been waning for decades and was always elusive. Leading remote workers is hard enough. Now it means you have to keep your people working for just you, much less jumping ship.  

Remote work has allowed homers to moonlight. Because all of those informal office dynamics—camaraderie, citizenship, sociability, information exchange, bonding, and others—have been stripped away by late rising and sweat pants and polo shirts. Maybe remote work is here to stay, despite all its collateral damage. It has emboldened some to disengage from their primary employers.  

Sometimes without any remorse.   

James R. Bailey is the Hochberg Professor of Leadership at George Washington University. He is the author of five books and over 50 academic articles, and a frequent contributor to and guest for major news outlets.  

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