27 March 2022 13:48:37 IST

Kamal Karanth is CoFounder of Xpheno, a specialist staffing company he has been building since 2017. Before turning an entrepreneur, Kamal worked as MD of Kelly Services and as Director APAC for Randstad, where he built teams that grew and created extraordinary results. Today, his team members are making an impact as leaders across the talent acquisition, HR, and staffing domains. A movie buff and cricket enthusiast, Kamal is a believer in relationships and has been writing monthly columns for The Hindu BusinessLine since 2016. LinkedIn ranked him among the top voices of India in 2020 for his consistent influencing blogs and vlogs around workplace dynamics. He is a talent specialist in RPO, IT staffing, and executive search.

The sun shines on moonlighting

HR friend: “What percentage of your employees moonlight?”

Me: “I don’t know, never thought of that.”

HR friend: “This is the new question akin to “what’s your attrition rate now ?

Me: “Oh, what is your moonlighting percentage?”

HR friend: Our guess is between 10-15 per cent. We are trying to connect the dots between unproductive and MIA — missing in action — employees, and we think moonlighting has a solid link to this.

Making hay

Working at an extra job, especially without telling your primary employer, is now a growing trend, thanks to the remote working model. It’s not that moonlighting wasn’t there before. During our pharma sales days, we used to whisper, “This doctor has a roaring private practice; the government pay is not enough for his lifestyle”.

Lecturers who took private paid tuition classes were the most famous example of moonlighting in those days. The new world of moonlighting in white-collar jobs has similar shades of conflict.

Missing in Action

In the world of field sales, there are plenty of MIA cases; “I don’t think this guy has even been to this town for a day; the doctors have confirmed too,” I told my boss after working with my reportee during my pharma stint. I was right. A casual enquiry showed my teammate hadn’t met the customers he had marked in his daily call report.

Pharma sales guys work alone in remote districts away from the glare of daily supervision of office settings, and there is ample room for the sales team to work on their own time or not turn up at all. There were extra allowances for outstation travel and some used to save the travel but report work to pocket the allowances.

One common characteristic of field sales is that 80 per cent of the days, the executives are not supervised in person, and that’s where the parallel to today’s moonlighting by knowledge workers starts.

Presence to productivity

Low employee productivity is the most prominent headache organisations have long tried to overcome. This has led to various acts or initiatives with mixed outcomes. The most common has been to control employees’ leaves as ‘being present’ was construed as work for the longest time.

Employees found innovative ways to beat this from flat tyres to imaginary illness of self and family members, thereby leading to a trust deficit with their supervisors.

Then came the concept of outcome vs presence in the knowledge industry, especially in the tech world. Employees soon started appreciating and rating employers higher who offered them more flexibility and benefits.

Finally, the pandemic forced employers to let further go of the ‘presence’ mindset and embrace employee productivity. The last two years has loosened the employer’s hold on the employee’s work schedule completely.

Precursors to ML

The first few months of Covid-19 saw organisations go out of their way to support employees. With generous health packages, mental health support, unusual time offs, enterprises tried to be more benevolent and empathetic.

However, many managers also accepted suboptimal output from their reportees as the talk of people working in trying circumstances from home got louder.

Some employees turned this into a new opportunity. The flat tyres were replaced by excuses of power failures, broadband bandwidth inadequacy and an invisible mode of working with voice calls, emails became acceptable. As a result, we created employees who mainly worked in a dark mode.

The subsequent pent-up demand in the job market gave employees easy avenues to find new employers. The massive offer dropouts with prospective employers and the lack of consequences around ghosting have been a significant tipping point to moonlighting.

Employees have been emboldened to try new projects with new employers in the dark virtual world, and some have been attempting to keep the old job simultaneously.

The shortage of tech workers in North America and the rise of remote freelance jobs also meant one could pull off multiple gigs outside the radar of existing employers.

Supervision dilemma

The bigger challenge for a few large enterprises has been that subset of employees who are neither productive nor visible. These organisations haven’t been able to quickly adapt to new processes and technology required in the remote world compounded by its managers, who have struggled to supervise the remote workforce adequately.

This flawed combination of People-Process-Technology has resulted in organisations not being able to link their workforce efforts and their productivity. The common dilemma for a manager confronting an unproductive team member was whether it was a will or a skill problem.

The additional dimension now is whether the team member is even working for you. The current thought process of linking missing employees with lower productivity to moonlighting may be flawed too. There is no way to prove that.

The new conundrum

Many tech organisations already have a great resignation problem. If we round off attrition ratios to 20 per cent, this means you have a transitioning organisation of 40 per cent people who are either leaving or newcomers.

So, your managers are already dealing with this massive change and now added to it is the moonlighting puzzle. As of now, most of us are in denial mode.

The return to office mode may be a solution, but the combination of office, remote and hybrid modes of working will be a logistic nightmare for managers and enterprises to pay special attention to moonlighters.

Is it time to focus again on the discipline of employment and let go of our obsession with employee delight?