Multiple employment: An alternative career path for experts?

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What comes to mind when you hear the term multiple employment? Most people probably think of precarious working conditions, of people who are forced to take a 2nd and 3rd job to make ends meet. Single employment is the norm in Germany. On average, employees have 4.5 employers during their working lives and change their job every 10 years.
The idea for this article was born during a conversation with an acquaintance about the background of her job change. I took her story as an opportunity to talk to other colleagues as well – and I came across a pattern that I would like to discuss here. I focus on experts and the question of when and why their steep corporate career curves sometimes flatten out. By experts, I mean colleagues who have detailed specialist knowledge and/or extensive practical experience in a particular field. Their contributions to the company’s success are considerable because they lead the way and you can trust in their experience of many years. But in my conversations, I learned that many – too many – of these experts have become “tired” over the years and lost their vigor. Although these colleagues continue to be passionate about their subject – not least because they also receive a lot of recognition for their knowledge – it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to implement their own agenda within the company.

Is a break-up necessary?
Every day we see how companies are facing the challenges of digitalization – unfortunately, everyone is fighting for themselves. I counter this with the concept of comprehensive collaboration and claim that alternative forms of (full) employment could play an important role in the future of work. In order to institutionalize an exchange between companies, I propose multiple employment or “distributed full-time” employment.
I will use the corporate career of my acquaintance as an example to illustrate this. Like everyone, she had to fight her way through the thicket of corporate structures until she found her niche. In this niche she flourished and became an expert – supported by her manager – because in a corporation, nothing will work without a network. As an employee she was very committed and always ready to take on the next task. She quickly acquired the reputation of being “deeply involved in the subject matter”. Naturally, she used her free time for further development and to deepen her knowledge. Her commitment did not go unnoticed outside the corporation either: at conferences and in social networks she quickly socialized with experts from other corporations and willingly exchanged ideas with them for mutual benefit. But at some point, her own professional footing crumbled. This happened gradually at first: she began to run into invisible walls in her company, was stalled, a project start was postponed, she found herself at the mercy of political games, and so on.
There were situations, she reports, where she knew exactly what had to be done and could have completed the task quickly and efficiently – but then something happened: the political wind changed, priorities changed. For whatever reason, the project was postponed. Annoying. She went through this a few times – maybe even many times – but at some point, she asked herself the question: Do I have to go through this?

Life is too short!
When a severance package was on the table, the decision was made quickly. Although she was actually wholeheartedly attached to the company, she made the decision to leave and take the step into self-employment. By necessity.
Because you never really leave. I myself always notice that when I talk about my old employers. You remain loyal, maintain contact with your ex-colleagues, leave the shares in your portfolio and willingly recommend your ex-company to others!
Human resources departments are aware of the special challenges of an expert career within a corporation and try to find solutions: corporations try to keep the experts with job rotation and social sabbaticals. Some employers grant their employees unpaid leave of absence and rights of return. Leading HR departments set up key person risk registers to mitigate the departure or absence of experts. However, the usual approach is still to grant the experts personnel responsibility or a special status. Unfortunately, this approach misses the mark too often, as only a few want to manage personnel or represent the company to the outside world.
If a break-up does occur, corporations increasingly try to cultivate the relationship with alumni programs to keep the NPS (net promoter score) high. The calculation is simple: in a tightening job market, top executives are scarce, and they largely know each other. So, if you want to have access to top resources in the future, you should maintain friendship with your alumni.
By the way, the problem also arises with managers. Although managers are rather generalists, we see the same phenomenon here. They are also sometimes hindered by obstacles (political, budgetary, strategic) so that they experience frustration and leave the company. As a result, high-performing teams break up and the damage is done.

A solution: multiple employment
So, what should the employer do if the experts want to leave the group or, worse still, seek their salvation in “work-to-rule”? To avoid losing outstanding employees completely, employers should let their employees go. But instead of cutting the ties by terminating the contract, the parties could also reduce working hours by mutual agreement. Perhaps the experts are even open to continuing to work part-time for their old employer. They could spend the rest of their time contributing their expertise to other employers, learning new things there at the same time or refueling their motivation.
Multiple employment in practice
What could such multiple employment look like in practice? The top priority is transparency – because it creates trust! After all, each of the 4-5 employers has a legitimate interest in knowing with whom they share the resource. Employers could draw up negative lists of companies they exclude in principle or exempt certain activities from multiple employment. When selecting employers, political interests could be considered (e.g. Germany as a business location or the EU) and thus prevent experts from migrating to global competition. The exchange between the private sector and public administration could also specifically be supported.

If it is done properly, everyone can benefit:

  • The old employers benefit because they do not lose their experts completely, but retain access to an important resource and the know-how built up over the years.
  • The new employers benefit, because they gain access to expertise that they might not have had access to full-time and might not have been able to afford.
  • The employees benefit because they do not jump in at the deep end, but at least continue their accustomed path on a part-time basis, while now being able to apply their knowledge in the new environment and reflect the knowledge gained.
  • Even the community could benefit, as shown above.

Companies in the Silicon Valley recognized the potential of cooperation early on and willingly tolerate second and third jobs. Companies such as BOSCH and SAP release employees for so-called working out loud rounds, in which they solve problems together with representatives from other companies. These cross-functional, diverse teams clearly show what cooperation can achieve.

Paradigm shift- From “time is money” to “time to live”
The equation of working time versus pay is becoming increasingly irrelevant in a digitalized and automated world.
When corporations such as Microsoft experiment with a 4-day work week and even increase work performance, or when home office workers perform better in fewer hours, we need to address the question of how to make the best use of our free time.
More than 70 years ago, A.H. Maslow vividly described people’s pursuit of self-realization as steps in a pyramid of needs:
Once a person has satisfied his or her basic (level 1) and security needs (level 2), he or she will spend time for social purposes (level 3). If they still have time, they will use it for individual purposes (step 4) or dedicate it to self-realization (step 5), i.e. they will unfold their talents, potentials and creativity, develop their personality and abilities, shape their life and its purpose.
Microsoft actually only grants its employees one day off with full pay because it pays off for the company. But if the economy covers the basic and security needs of the experts, shouldn’t society, as the beneficiary of this development, consider how it can promote and demand social and individual behavior. And this should not only be done at the beginning of working life (cf. Mein Jahr für Deutschland), but throughout the entire working life (cf. Senior Expert).
Of course, multiple employment must be a flexible reflection of the phases of life. For Generation Y, enough money and a high degree of freedom would be desirable. In midlife, employees need stable working conditions and when the children are away from home, you might want to start over – money is not that important. With the experience of many years of work, a few hours should be enough to cover basic and security needs – the rest of the time is spent on step 3, 4 and 5 projects.
Considering all of this, the idea of multiple employment seems tempting, but there are areas that need to be examined more closely:
In addition to labor law (multiple employment contracts with possibly conflicting loyalty obligations; compliance with the Working Time Protection Act), competition law, professional law (e.g. for lawyers) and tax law (in particular its social-insurance law issues) must be examined, and experts from the fields of HR, work ethics, employee inventions and cyber security must also be consulted – all of this requires a more in-depth study of the subject than this condensed article is able to provide.

The premise of time is money has led us to work increasingly more in order to enhance our ever-diminishing free time through consumerism. However, this growth-based model reaches its natural limits where machines perform work more effectively and efficiently than humans. Therefore, the value contribution of the employees should be the center of attention – because increasing it will pay off for everyone: the employers, the employees and society. To make better use of the time freed up by digital change for the benefit of all is the challenge and obligation of our generation. A new way of thinking is called for: multi-employment could be an important piece of the puzzle.

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