Since the pandemic began, the concept of polywork has been taking off— what does it mean, how prevalent is it or will it become? Here we look at the topic and how it may impact your organization in the new year.
The term polywork has become so prevalent that there’s even a website devoted to the concept—polywork.com.
What is Polywork?
As the name suggests, what the term means is working for more than one employer. While not an entirely new idea, what makes it different now is the amped-up opportunities employees have to work for two — or more — employers as many are working out of their homes or in some hybrid fashion.
Striking the Right Balance to Address Desire for Freedom and Flexibility
Since March 2020, many employees have gained experience working from home — and many have found that they like it. They like it so much that they may be loathed to return to the physical work setting, even choosing to leave their jobs if their employers take a hard-line approach to demand that employees return to work.
That reluctance is picking up speed as a new coronavirus variant—Omicron—sweeps across the country. Even Wall Street, which has led the call to bring employees back to the workplace, has put those plans on hold, at least for now. Most companies have committed to some form of hybrid work, however.
That’s wise given employee sentiment.
A survey by CBRE of 10,000 respondents around the globe conducted in September 2020 found that “eighty-five percent of respondents prefer to work remotely at least two to three days a week”—87% of companies with more than 10,000 staff members say they’ll adopt hybrid work. They’re all approaching the model somewhat differently, depending on organizational and individual employee needs and preferences.
Working from home, though, can create an environment where employees are “out of sight, and out of mind.” The inability to oversee what an employee is doing—and whom they’re doing it for—can create some employers’ challenges and even risks.
Potential Employer Risk
Polywork may represent a risk for employers—whether they’re aware their employees are engaged in the practice, or not.
John Lee is co-founder at The Work From Anywhere team, an international tax marketplace for companies that employ remote workers. He points to some potential employer risks related to the polywork concept.
For one thing, he says, “duty of care becomes a bit of a nightmare.” He explains: “The employer has a duty in many jurisdictions to make sure the place of work is safe, and if someone moonlighting two jobs has to take stress leave due to exhaustion, then that may trigger a duty of care liability. Who foots the bill for healthcare expenses and employee medical leave in this case?”
In addition, he says, “taxes can also become a minefield, especially as many countries are digitalizing their tax databases, which have been accelerated since COVID.” There is the potential, he says, for an employer to “potentially see that tax credits and cut-offs have already been adjusted for the work performed for another employer, which might lead to some tricky conversions.”
Branka Vuleta, founder and general manager of LegalJobs—a job-seeking platform that helps legal professionals find jobs in top-rated law companies around the globe—says that she has seen the polywork trend picking up since the onset of the pandemic. Only now, she says, are employers beginning to have a clue that this is going on. “I’ve heard stories about employees with four or five remote jobs,” she says. Like Lee, she points to burnout as one potential risk for employers.
But, unless employers have an explicit contract with employees, there’s not much they can do. They’re also at risk, she suggests, of employees working for the company’s competition. “Unless you established in their work contract that there was a non-compete clause, then they are free to work for your competitors,” she says. Employers, she says, “should make sure to revise their work contracts to reflect the new-normal work from home world that we find ourselves in.”
How Companies Should Approach the Issue
Jacob Villa is co-founder and marketing director of School Authority, a site that matches students with their ideal college in the United States based on their career aspirations, lifestyle, and other personal preferences. Villa doesn’t think there’s much employers can do to prevent employees from working at other jobs. “The best we can do for now is to reduce the factors that encourage this practice,” he says. “That means being better bosses, giving better pay and benefits, and allowing for greater opportunities to grow professionally within the company.”
These are all factors that employees are saying are very important to them.
Villa says he hires many remote workers from overseas and has found that employers are more lenient about these employers working for other employers because, he says, “overseas employees tend to work across multiple time zones, allowing them to hold two jobs without technically having to do them at the same time.”
Organizations need to weigh the pros, cons, and potential risks of polywork as they consider the policies and practices they need to put into place to find the right balance between meeting employees’ needs for autonomy and flexibility and protecting their organizations’ intellectual property and reputations.