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Why moonlighting is not always like cheating on your job

Doing side gigs only makes sense if the employee can pursue their genuine interests outside of work

Moonlighting makes for a great investment if the employee helps the firm develop new skills and competencies.
Moonlighting makes for a great investment if the employee helps the firm develop new skills and competencies. (iStockphoto.)

Imagine that your application for a teaching position has been rejected by a number of universities and teaching institutions in Europe. You advertise private tuitions but no pupils turn up. You settle for a job as a third-division clerk at a patent office, reading patent applications from nine in the morning till five in the evening, six days a week. Back home, your marriage is in trouble. And yet, you churn out no less than five theoretical papers on science, three of which will give a new lease of life to physics for another century. That was Einstein in 1905. He was a technical expert—class III at the Federal Office for Intellectual Property in Bern between 1902 and 1909, and with no access to any scientific instruments, literature, colleagues, or inspiration. He was all by himself, consumed by his thought experiments. By today’s standards of work culture, Einstein was moonlighting.

Every few months, there’s a storm in a teacup about moonlighting—or working at another job while holding a steady one. The term hit headline soon after the pandemic, when work-from-home became the norm and employees logged in without the supervision of their bosses. Is it indeed “cheating” as some leaders have declared? It depends on what you do—if you do the very same work for a competitor, it is wrong. But, if the side hustle is a creative pursuit that gives you a shot at creating history, why not?

Also read: The office needs smart workers, not workaholics

Steve Wozniak was creating the future of Apple years before he left HP to set up the company with Steve Jobs. He would develop new hardware and systems with no direct relevance to the HP of the day. During the late 1980s, Tim Berners-Lee took on the side gig of automating information sharing between scientists in universities and institutes around the world, which led to the creation of the World Wide Web. If there is a pent-up creative capacity which is not adequately channelised by the employer, the person should be allowed to do justice to it.

There are three conditions under which moonlighting makes sense, and, in fact, must be encouraged. First, when an employee’s talent is not fully utilised or developed, the employee must be allowed to take up additional tasks within or outside the formal setup. After all, it is an employer’s responsibility to tap into the resource or they run the risk of the asset eroding. It’s not just utilisation of talent, but also development and enhancement through exposure. The mythologist and writer Devdutt Pattanaik spent his early years at Sanofi Aventis and Apollo Group of Hospitals honing his skills as a writer, alongside his day job as a medical practitioner. That allowed him to craft a creative career for himself as well as entertain and inform a huge number of readers.

Second, when the cause the employee is working for is broader than the firm’s immediate interest or relevance. If an employee is creating a solution that could potentially shift the paradigm of the market as a whole, the firm should be willing to fund such a venture. That’s how Intel encouraged its engineer, Ajay Bhatt, to create the USB standard that didn’t just benefit the firm to inter-operate with other devices but became an industry standard for data communication. It was not exactly what Intel, the chip maker, was known for.

Third, moonlighting makes for a great investment if the employee helps the firm develop new skills and competencies. If an employee is working on a similar domain that the firm excels in then where is the firm learning from? It’s a circular flow of knowledge. It is possible that through a side-gig the employee develops new competences that would become mainstream in the organisation. This way the firm can transform to become future ready.

The early experiments that the internal IT team did at Amazon with its infrastructure and computational capacity laid the foundation of AWS, which has become the biggest profit engine for the company. All such experiments were planted years before the company made any profits from its core business.

Side gigs or moonlighting makes sense if the employee can pursue genuine interest outside of work. If it is about making a quick buck, doing the same work at a similar setup, then it is rightfully criticised, but not all moonlighting is bad. Who knows if the next Einstein is sitting in a cubicle down the corridor, hiding their creations from you? Time for you to unleash such talent without getting insecure.

Pavan Soni is the founder of Inflexion Point, an innovation and strategy consultancy. He’s the author of Design Your Thinking: The Mindsets, Toolsets and Skill Sets for Creative Problem-solving.

Also read: Learnings from 2023 to help build a better office in 2024


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