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Going back to the office means giving up lucrative WFH side hustles for many employees

Now that offices and businesses are reopening again, commuting Americans stand to lose thousands of dollars in side gigs.

Going back to the office means giving up lucrative WFH side hustles for many employees
[Photo: SouthWorks/iStock]
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Shortly after the pandemic began in early 2020, Jeane, a New Yorker now living in Bermuda, started a food business. The 54-year-old civil servant, who didn’t want her last name used out of fear of repercussions at work, had always loved to cook and bake and decided to use her extra time—an hour-long roundtrip to her office, plus spare minutes during the 9-to-5 workday—to sell her baked goods to a local caterer.

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Jeane estimates she was spending 10 hours a week at the peak, plus baking time, which required no exertion from her beyond opening and closing her GE oven and then checking on the pastries’ progress.

That ended in May when Jeane’s bosses recalled everyone to the office. The baking side hustle translated into as much as $500 per month for the household she shares with her husband, 11-year-old son, and 2 cats.

No more. She had to give up the business entirely.

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“I don’t have the time I used to when I was working from home . . . The multitasking was really effective,” Jeane says. “It was really great play money, emergency money. Stuff happens, and it was nice to have extra.”

Now that offices and businesses are reopening again, millions of commuting Americans stand to lose more than $10,000 a year, according to a new study by LendingTree. The financial hit comes not in the form of spending on once-paused and now-returned line items, such as gasoline, mass transit fares, carpool costs, parking passes, and automotive wear-and-tear, but rather the opportunity cost—the potential to earn money during the time they would have spent commuting.

Commuters in Fremont, California, stand to lose the most, $15,065 annually; while Tulsa, Oklahoma, residents, last on the list of the 100 largest U.S. cities, are looking at $3,255, according to the study.

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LendingTree used average round-trip commute times and median earnings for full-time (38 to 41 hours, depending on the city) workers to calculate what it costs the annual “lost value of the alternative.” For Fremont, that’s 73 minutes and $95,221 versus Tulsa’s 37 minutes and $41,302.

Among the things Jeane spent the extra cash on was a replacement windshield for the beige 2014 Kia Rio that she is back to commuting in.

“It was very bittersweet coming back to work,” Jeane reflects. “When you’re home, you can be much more unbridled about the creativity.”

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Side hustles are hot

Le Zhou, associate professor of work and organizations at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, draws a distinction between the types of side gigs that people do. Some side hustles make people more productive at their main jobs, while others might be passion projects that transform hobbies into sources of emotional replenishment. Others might be important revenue streams. For the first type, employers might make time and space to allow the side hustle to flourish, while a hobby can retreat to what it was pre-pandemic. But for individuals who have added to their off-hours workload for financial reasons, it’s complicated.

“With this change, people who have already started their side projects will face a few choices,” Zhou explains, advocating for them to do a cost-benefit analysis for both the full-time and part-time jobs. “If you have to spend three hours on the road, that’s three hours you couldn’t spend on side work, but a job means different things for different people. Whether it’s a direct translation through an hourly rate and an hourly amount of happiness I get from my work is a very subjective calculation.”

Millions of American adults, all of whom have only 24 hours in a day, have shoehorned in time for extra cash. Thirty-four percent have a side hustle, according to a Harris Poll conducted for Zapier in late December, and another 61.1 million, or 24%, planned to start one in 2021.

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And the side gig phenomenon seems linked to the pandemic, the survey finds. Of the people who have these working-beyond-day-job setups, 31% started their off-shoot businesses in 2020.

“Ultimately, it’s career insurance for yourself,” said Dorie Clark, author of Entrepreneurial You: Monetize Your Expertise, Create Multiple Income Streams, and Thrive. “It’s essentially a belt and suspenders.”

A fan of people maintaining a side gig while working, she emphasizes the importance of focusing on the long game and of thinking in waves. There are periods of time in one’s professional life to over-index on certain things and times to under-index, so toggling back and forth is key. During the pandemic, the chance to put a lot of emphasis on a side gig was there, while perhaps drawing back on a full-time job. Now, get ready to swing the other way.

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“This is a good opportunity for a reset, providing you want to stay in your job,” Clark contends. “It’s worth shifting focus to reconnect with your boss and colleagues to get reacclimated to life in the office. That doesn’t mean ignore the side business and let it wither. It means there are seasons.”

Time management challenge

Sara Hanks says she’s going to try to juggle both. Her “main job,” as she calls it, is director of program management at a company that manufacturers products for the railroad industry, like locomotives and airbrakes. Then, in April 2020, after 10-plus years of implementing software systems on the shop floor, she decided to create an app to counter often-clunky quality-system software. A few months later, she added a partner to her company, Leverage4Data, and they’re continuing to work on perfecting the app designed to help manufacturers manage their supplier quality.

The 43-year-old Erie, Pennsylvania, resident, who’s been at her current company for 21 years, spends 70 minutes commuting round trip, plus another hour needed for getting dressed, putting on makeup, packing a lunch, etc. She estimates spending 40 to 45 hours a week on her full-time job and another 15 for her part-time one—and she fears how she’ll be able to balance, as her company switches to a hybrid work plan in September.

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“I have mixed feelings. On one hand, I had the opportunity to go back to the office for a couple days last week. There’s a real energy by being around other people, and I think that’s great, but things are starting to get a little traction, ” Hanks explains. “Things are going well, so I don’t want to give that up. It’ll be a big challenge in terms of time management.”

She’s debating whether to bring her personal laptop to work and then duck out for her lunch hour to a nearby coffee shop for client meetings.

“I’m a creator and I want to build a legacy,” she says. “I didn’t discover this in myself until I was 40 years old, and at that time I had a family responsibility to bring home my paycheck to them. That’s when I decided I can’t give up the opportunity to pursue my dream to create a company. I do know how to work hard, so why not go for it?”