Is it time for HR teams to embrace the side hustle?

The pandemic has spawned a legion of side hustlers who are running businesses and pursuing other passion projects alongside their day jobs. Could encouraging such activities boost employee engagement? 


At the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations in London, side hustles are practically the norm. The not-for-profit research body has an administrator who takes time off to work as a touring opera singer. One of her colleagues juggles her job at the institute with delivering TED talks and pursuing academic and charitable projects on disability. There are actors, physiotherapists and even a farmer on the payroll. 

Such activities have been encouraged at the institute for as long as Rachel Kelly, who joined it more than 15 years ago, can remember. Kelly, who has a part-time job here as a senior consultant, researcher and engagement manager, also works as a trained instructor of the Alexander technique, which teaches people how to improve their posture. 

Enabling people to devote enough time to all their professional interests is a win-win for employee and employer, she says. “This is about your whole self being in the work. For the organisation, it makes for happier employees. People who are into what they’re doing will be brand ambassadors without even thinking about it.”

Traditionally, employers haven’t always agreed with this view, preferring that staff focus fully on their salaried role. Some have even required employees to sign contracts to that effect, precluding their pursuit of any other paid work without first obtaining HR’s express permission. 

But is that approach starting to look outdated? After all, the Covid crisis has created a generation of side hustlers. A survey of UK workers with a side hustle by the Fiverr job site in January found that more than half had started theirs during the pandemic. They cited economic reasons for doing so, such as the increasing cost of living and decreasing job security, alongside the extra time that many furloughed workers had suddenly been granted to explore their entrepreneurial side. 

Thousands more people in the UK are running their own business while also holding down a full- or part-time job than there were before the pandemic. At the same time, record numbers are reportedly quitting their employers in search of more meaningful work in the so-called great resignation. 

With these trends in mind, might HR teams that encourage staff to pursue other passions alongside their day jobs have found themselves a simple way to boost employee engagement? 

Holly Stephens is a firm believer in such an approach. The founder and CEO of subtitle and translation service Subly has started three businesses as side hustles, two alongside a full-time job. She actively encourages her team of 13 at Subly to follow her example. 

“It was important for me to give my team members the chance to continue their side hustles, just as I did,” Stephens says. “In fact, the reason I wanted to work with some of them was that they had one. Their side hustles made it attractive for me as an employer to build a team of people who understand the problems I’m trying to solve, as they’re dealing with similar issues themselves.”

If the company’s graphic designer were to build a profile on YouTube, for instance, she could give great feedback on Subly’s own subtitle service for videos. Or if the marketing manager were to start a podcast series, that process would contribute to the firm’s audio-to-text know-how for podcasters 

It was important for me to give my team members the chance to continue their side hustles, just as I did

Such activities would “benefit the company just as much as they would serve their personal aspirations”, Stephens says.

Molly Masters, founder-director of Books That Matter, a subscription service that promotes the work of female authors, has taken a similar stance. Among her team are artists, potters, photographers and novelists, all of whom are able to balance their professional pursuits with their work for the company. 

“Our subscription boxes require creative visions to be responsive to the latest consumer trends. While our office is a hub of ideas, inspiration often strikes when we’re not at our desks,” she says. “We therefore know the true value of encouraging creativity in our staff and the positive effects it has on our business.” 

The pandemic-era “work ethic is leaning much more towards an understanding of the multi-hyphen mentality”, adds Masters, referring to Emma Gannon’s 2018 book The Multi-Hyphen Method: work less, create more and design a career that works for you. “This is where employers choose to respect and admire the range of skills their employees have. Allowing them to work on finessing these will benefit the business.” 

But what does an employer’s active support for side hustles look like in practice? Books That Matter sets aside what Masters calls an “employee inspiration” budget that team members can spend on attending events and courses. 

Whatever developmental activity they choose to invest in, it “will inspire them and nurture their creativity, side hustles or passion projects”, she says. 

At Subly, meanwhile, it’s all about honesty and clarity. The leadership team has striven to establish a culture that makes it clear to everyone that it’s OK to have professional aspirations outside work. But it has also set clear boundaries. For example, there is a requirement that no side hustle competes directly with the business. 

“There has to be openness on both sides,” Stephens stresses. “Employees must be transparent about their career aspirations. It doesn’t work if someone feels that they need to keep these a secret.” 

With the right guidelines in place, though, the benefits can be significant for both employer and employee, with increased engagement and job satisfaction, reduced staff turnover and even higher productivity. 

For anyone who remains unconvinced, Masters recommends delving into business books such as The Multi-Hyphen Method or Otegha Uwagba’s Little Black Book: a toolkit for working women

“These both explore how making time for creativity, passions, hobbies and side hustles benefits both our mental wellbeing and our professional prospects – and how employers can respect and encourage this,” she says.

Kelly acknowledges that firms competing for scarce skills in a tight recruitment market might have the urge to exert more control, not less, over their workers’ extracurricular activities. But her argument is that “the more you let go, the more control you have. Give people the freedom to develop their talents and blossom, and they will respond.”