Tackling overemployment in remote first companies

Since the pandemic overemployment has become a divisive topic in workplace culture, with employers citing this as a reason to mandate a return to the office. Creating high trust environments is hard, and this is made more challenging by a rising sub culture that encourages deception and short term gain through employees taking multiple full time positions.

Leaders in remote async environments must understand this new reality in order to find ways to tackle overemployment, without sacrificing the high trust environments we wish to foster.  


Why is overemployment prevalent?

After the pandemic forced many businesses to transition to a remote setup companies found incumbent office practices did not translate to the remote world, and nascent companies, adopted new remote async approaches. In product engineering companies this transition was accelerated by familiar agile practices, which lend themselves to reduced meetings and an emphasis on velocity. A system of good intentions created conditions for opportunists to exploit. A skills shortage leading to lucrative compensation packages in disciplines such as software engineering created all the ingredients for greed to manifest.

This resulted in predatorial behaviours. Employees can now entertain the possibility of doubling their income if they can hold their nerve and are above average in competence. These individuals believe the rewards outweigh the risks.

How can leaders tackle overemployment?

As leaders it's important to understand the detrimental impact this behaviour can have on teams and organisations. While a talented polygot may double the output of their nearest peer, culture if fundamentally about what you punish and what you reward, so your decision should always be consistent and inline with your company values.

There are patterns to the behaviour of the overemployed, and knowing what to look for is key.

Peer reviews

Soliciting feedback from peers has many positives, but in the case of the overemployed it's typically the primary means to get data points about a persons availability and collaboration. Introduce a 360 review process. If you spot a pattern of feedback that someone is distant, or disengaged dig into that, be authentically curious and avoid jumping to conclusions, there might be legitimate reasons, but if the discovery does not align with your own interactions with that person, start asking yourself why.

Avoid vanity metrics

There are many poor measures of contribution, from commits, to lines of code changed. Simply put, these are ripe for gamification and tell you nothing about someones impact, so avoid looking purely at someones technical competency. The fact someone can do the job should be no surprise, instead focus on answering the questions can you work with them? and can they work with you?

Availability and engagement

Are individuals missing recurring team rituals? Is there a patten of last minute circumstances that lead to dropping off calls early or turning off the camera, or simply not turning up. The first step is to call out this behaviour, be explicit that this is an area for improvement. Excuses such as poor time management should be met with clear plan on how this is addressed, owned by the individual, not you. Put a timeframe by when you expect to see improvement.

Trust and verify

Finally, the management adage of 'trust and verify' applies irrespective to whether a team is distributed or co-located. Do not confuse this with micro-management, it simply means you reserve the right to verify the completeness and correctness of work. Being explicit on this point will set a clear level of expectation, and those that choose to play with fire do so fully understanding the consequences.