We are living in the age of the side-hustle. In Britain, one-in-four adults has an extra job or a business according to a Henley Business School survey conducted in May this year.
It’s big business, generating £72-billion a year or 3.6% of the country’s GDP. So, what are side-hustles? It could be anything from craft business, to book writing, investing in the stock market to buying and selling online or even blogging. The most common is holding down more than one job.
Some people do it to earn more money, they have to, but others do it because if they didn’t they’d die – figuratively, stifled by bureaucracy and corporate.
In fact, it’s the jobsworth 9-5 attitude that’s probably one of the biggest drivers of side-hustling. I always ask, ‘how much of me is welcome at work?’.
It’s a question that depends on the corporate culture of where I work. In some companies, it’s only the bottom half: conformance, good thinking and hard work. In those environments there’s no place for your initiative or your passions, your creativity and your independence. But they have to go somewhere.
People naturally want to grow and expand and side hustling offers precisely this opportunity because jobs – especially in the corporate environment - are too narrow. We are living in the age of the patchwork career; by 2030 we will be talking about employed-preneurs, rather than looking to hand out gold watches to long-serving employees.
The problem, as this phenomenon blooms exponentially, is that although most of the businesses in this study accepted that 9-5 was no longer the norm, most of them were either ignoring the phenomenon of side-hustling or didn’t have a policy in place to regulate it.
I think it’s a missed opportunity – it’s also a fatal error. Side-hustling is a very healthy phenomenon with huge benefits if it’s properly managed. But sticking your head in the sand as a CEO or HR director, or even worse actively oppressing it by acting with authority, contempt of downright denigration will just force an entire generation of side-hustlers underground – with potentially fatal consequences for your company.
We often tend to overthink things, particularly the potential down side. That’s often enough to scupper a project at birth. In this case, the concerns are real: theft of company resources, illegal use of company facilities, stealing time. Some people do side-hustle negatively, actively trying to undermine the companies where they work in a bid to set up their own operations. Others though do it to fulfil their passions or earn more money than their company can actually afford to pay them.
If you blindly outlaw the practice, you will simply create a revolution of people doing the actual minimum at work and the absolute maximum outside. What should be happening instead is creating an environment where you can project manage the problem cases, the 10 or 15% of the bad apples to benefit from the positives of all the other side-hustlers by legitimising the practise through proper regulations, bringing it out into the open.
That way you allow staff to develop new skills which the company can’t afford to give them, skills which could be to the company’s benefit. You might be able to internalise some of the side-hustles creating a cohort of inside-hustlers, or even set some of your side-hustlers free to go out and set up their own businesses which can actually form part of the corporate supply chain. Some companies recognise this to such an extent that the give staff a day a week to do what they want.
A lot of people are side-hustling, you might even be doing it yourself – some CEOs actually are. The current expectation is that at least one in every two employees will be doing it in the UK in the next decade. Many of the business leaders interviewed agreed that allowing side-hustling was a great way to retain top talent. But it could go further than that, it could challenge the very nature of how we incubate entrepreneurs.
Currently with the focus on youth employment, there’s a huge amount of effort and energy going into creating youth employment with a focus on youth entrepreneurism. We get young people, help them do a business plan, access funding and then watch them fail, because we’ve got people with no experience trying to start businesses.
It can work, but there will obviously be attrition, there has to be. That’s fine if this was Silicon Valley where investors won’t even look at you until you’ve failed two or three times, but in South Africa if you fail more than once, you’re not regarded as a decent investment risk – on the contrary, investors will run in the other direction.
Maybe we should be looking at the side-hustle phenomenon as an alternative incubator for middle-aged entrepreneurs. For a start, the success rate will be that much higher; the entrepreneurs will be older and more experienced, they will have a safety net because they will be employed and their barriers to entry are that much lower.
By the time they look to start scaling up their operations they will find it that much easier to access funding because they will have a proven track record and they will be able to employ many people who will be able to learn while they earn and in turn, become side-hustlers or inside hustlers and build the momentum.
And ironically, if we go back to the study, it’s the micro-businesses that encourage the greatest degree of latitude when it comes to side-hustling.
It’s time business lost its blind spot about side hustling – while there’s still time to harness it as a force for good in an economy that is undergoing unprecedented disruption on all fronts, to say nothing of rolling recessions and whimsical global trade wars sparked by leaders we’ve never met nor voted for.
Establish trust, have an open-door policy and reap the benefits of increased staff morale and commitment and unlocked creativity and commercial agility, developing people who can solve existing business problems by fostering new opportunities.
It really is a win-win situation for business leaders with the stomach to master the balancing act that is required.
Jon Foster-Pedley is Dean of Henley Business School, Africa.