Moonlighting: An idea whose time has come

In this Founding Fuel Masterclass, Satish Pradhan, TN Hari, Surabhi Sanchita and Kavi Arasu unpack the undercurrents and how leaders are thinking about it

Founding Fuel

In early August Swiggy announced its “industry-first” policy on moonlighting. This comes at an interesting juncture—two years of Covid have upended many notions about work, employment and moonlighting. What really lies behind this change and these conversations?

In this Founding Fuel Masterclass, Satish Pradhan, TN Hari, Surabhi Sanchita and Kavi Arasu unpack the undercurrents and how leaders are thinking about it.

What’s at play

  • Fairness: An employer bought a certain number of hours from the employee. But now, for knowledge workers, employers expect them to be available at all times. Employers’ expectations have changed. Yet the expectation that employees can't do anything else in their spare time is unfair.
  • Trust: In the West, it’s common to do part time jobs to indulge their passion or for financial support. One can’t share trade secrets, but apart from that people should be allowed to do what they want. 
  • Identity: At one point in time, the employer set the identity for people. Now having a portfolio of skills has become more important—that I can market myself. At the same time, availability and access to this kind of work opportunity has increased exponentially post-Covid.

“These are important societal shifts at the broader level.” – Kavi Arasu

  • It’s a necessity for some: The job losses during the pandemic made many people in the unorganised and even organised sector more vulnerable. A restaurant worker’s first response was, ‘some job is better than no job’. [Gig work or working two shifts became necessary to make ends meet.]

“The notion of whole time employment meant 24-hours, I own this asset. One assumption that’s changed today is people want access to capability and are not concerned with ownership of the asset.” - Satish Pradhan

The environment is changing for knowledge workers. And IT firms are resisting those changes

  • The rising trend of gig work: Gig work is pretty common in the blue collar category. The pandemic enabled this for white collar workers, as they were forced to work from home, and could access cross-border opportunities; payments became easier.
  • Stagnant wages at entry level: IT companies are operating in grey areas when it comes to fairness in dealing with employees—contracts are asymmetric and one-sided. Their contracts with clients have a clause where price escalation is related to wage inflation. But wage inflation doesn't happen. These companies have been able to keep entry-level salaries on campuses almost constant. That’s their entire business model. Keep the bottom of the pyramid cost fixed. 
  • No redressal: It is unfair to deny the freedom to form associations. Ecommerce companies have unfair liability clauses where the delivery person is forced to pick up the cost of a misplaced item, and he has no way to seek redressal. 
  • Work is no longer 9-5, but the rules of employment are outdated: There was a rule that said you can’t do other work on company premises. Which is outdated, because employees perform company work in their own premises (their homes). Work is no longer 9-5. When work itself has become flexible, how employees use their time should also have some fairness.

“I think there’s no need even for an employee to disclose what they do in their free time. Whenever a big trend is taking shape, two groups begin to form. One decides to ride the trend; the other resists till it becomes inevitable and they are forced to adapt.” - TN Hari

Symptom of a transactional relationship

Is moonlighting a symptom or a solution? - VJ Rao, FF subscriber

  • What’s a job really? A job has three components
    • A legal contract
    • A task contract
    • A psychological contract—do I belong to this place?
  • Over time, the contracts have become one-sided and the relationships have become transactional.  
  • Another important thing to understand is, is my job challenging enough in my regular space? We mistakenly assume that people moonlight only for money.
  • Are there good strong relationships within the setup? If those are missing as well, then moonlighting is a symptom.
  • Therefore, moonlighting can offer solutions to a wide array of issues.

“If the Gen-Z are not feeling connected with the organisation or don’t enjoy their work, there’s definitely a problem.” - Surabhi Sanchita


What does moonlighting do to our notions of rest and rejuvenation? - Anmol Srivastava

  • Workers are also stakeholders in managing a transition.
  • People are struggling with this because of the paradigm of employment that we’ve grown to understand.  We’ve worked in large organisations where we’ve had a notion of a well-intentioned legal contract, an intent to ensure rest and rejuvenation (with leave travel, building holiday homes, etc)
  • Most of the people doing these side gigs are doing it for passion, and if you enjoy what you do, burnout doesn’t happen.
  • Burnout is really a problem for employees working in organisations, doing work day after day, working on weekends, doing work they don’t like. 

“What explains the large number of reported burnouts?... Moonlighting is prevalent at the level which is significantly above the minimum wage level. It is about more competitive earnings as well. It is also happening [in a few cases] at the very high end—at the level of a real deep tech player… more burnout is happening because people are burning the midnight oil in the organisations that they are working in.” - Satish Pradhan

Moonlighting and innovation/creativity

Many new ventures are set up by entrepreneurs while they do their day jobs. Isn’t it possible for companies to see this as an innovation driver and a new venture tool? - Ajay Kelkar

  • There are many organisations like Flipkart and TaxiForSure that engendered this. They encouraged employees to have fun and build their own thing. They didn’t see it as a problem at all. 
  • People are passionate and want to do something extra.

Passion and excitement

You first need to decide what excites you and what you can do toward that goal. But can you slice your excitement and say that these are my time zones when I am in my zone? - Stephen Poonnen 

  • Is excitement an input or an outcome? If you look at it as an input, that I need to be excited to pursue something, then the question is, when am I excited enough to do x, and how can I compartmentalise a few things?
  • But if you look at it as an outcome—when I do this I get excited—then you start looking at what do I do that gives me this excitement? And then you can see how much time you have and how you play with it. 
  • There is no definiteness to what exactly will excite me. That’s where a portfolio of skills and experiences counts. You do a bunch of experiments.

“You can't say ‘this is the boundary’. People with a higher boundaryless-ness quotient will tend to pursue a bunch of different things. Those things need not fit the label of moonlighting… A person in my apartment complex is part of the resident welfare association. Is that moonlighting?” – Kavi Arasu

  • Do not look for excitement at the start-line. Seek out if you are still excited when you finish the project. That’s the way to figure out ‘where do I go back and start again?’
  • Passion and boundaryless-ness has been an emergent theme for quite some time. Organisations have responded in an older fashioned way, saying ‘why don’t you take a sabbatical’?
  • Is being on an independent board, or taking classes in a village moonlighting?

How do you promote your skills portfolio? 

  • Passion is a key ingredient of how people flesh out the multiple zones in their lives. It’s also an important dimension where people are recognising, ‘I have a choice.’
  • The flipside of the learning from Covid is, people are saying ‘I am alone, I have to deal with this on my own.’
  • People have done a lot of soul searching on what really matters to me? What energises me?
  • The need to say, ‘This is what I am available to do, and I am happy to stand in the public domain and I will do it with (or without) compensation’ is for people to say.
  • The trust is needed from employers and employees—where the employer says I trust you that you will do what the contract of confidentiality and trustworthiness requires. And the moonlighter feels, what is mine is mine and you will not give it away to a shareholder.
  • There are formal consultants that now seek you out and offer you moonlighting opportunities.
  • You don’t necessarily need to say that I need this kind of opportunity, but you regularly exhibit stuff that excites you. Publishing on YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, or a blog demonstrates your portfolio of skills. 
  • The central problem is to say all of moonlighting is bad. There are different shapes to the moon! 
  • How much time are you spending on that and what is your core skill that you are applying? If a Wipro says, ‘this particular skill that I am hiring, is a competitive advantage’, they may not have a problem if the employee volunteers somewhere. But they might have a problem if the employee uses the same skill she was hired for parallelly for someone else. That’s where the problem really is.
  • In a way a lot of people are still saying moonlighting is criminal. At best we’ve heard people say we will frame a policy for this. There’s an attempt to capture the beast and regulate it. 

“You can’t deal with the subject of giving people respect for their own time, unless you decriminalise moonlighting.” - Satish Pradhan

“Using your core skills for other gigs—what else can an employee do? It’s very difficult to identify whether those core skills have been paid for enough to expect somebody not to use those anywhere else and your unlimited time is available for deploying those skills only with the current employer, is a bit vague” - TN Hari

Employee contracts

Is it time for IT companies to innovate their employee contracts? - Satish Manne

  • Unless you feel a sense of fulfilment, you will not be creative at your workplace.
  • Reasonable restrictions are OK. All you (employee) need to say is you are available for so many hours, you are not going to disclose confidential information about the company, and you’re not going to work for a direct competitor.
  • Competitive pressures will force companies like Swiggy to take the lead and they will become talent magnets.
  • Attrition levels are worrying enough for them to act—the constructive way is to give employees independence and treat them like adults. The other way of doing it is to clamp down—say, by asking for and enforcing a three-month notice period. Because then you are retaining a bunch of unhappy people and unhappy people don’t make your customers very happy.

“Contracts even in new age companies say that you cannot join the competitor for 12 months. If I am not allowed to use my skill in the same kind of industry, where will I utilise my skill?” - Surabhi Sanchita

  • We are seeing the emergence of an institutionalised stream of capability that becomes difficult for the competition to replicate. Then the notion of fragmenting the building of that capability as a source of competitive advantage cuts to the heart of ideas of business success.   

How should leaders approach this, in terms of mindset change and getting buy-in?  

  • When some of these things begin to get accepted, it will affect the company’s margins. So there will be resistance.
  • “Core skills”—they are so broadly defined. Most people don’t have anything core that will give the company competitive advantage.  
  • Review employment agreements. They are drafted by lawyers who always tend to think of imposing restrictions. Make reasonable changes.
  • Have open conversations, allow people to engage with the idea. Startup entrepreneurs are not worried so much about employment contracts; they worry more about whether people can deliver promptly. The more the organisation is open about these things people start redrawing their boundaries of what can happen, and experiment. 
  • The fears of confidentiality are real—I am building something, will it go to competitors?  
  • Employees also need to understand the consequences of their actions—making quick money could lead to burnout.   

“There’s a ban in this particular organisation (on moonlighting) and it is also forcing all employees to come back to office as a way to prevent this. This employee has found young coders in small cities to whom he outsources his moonlight job. He has a way of monitoring it on his phone. You can’t stop it. Open conversations will help people make the best use for themselves.” - Kavi Arasu

“If you trust your people, your people will trust you. We no longer use punch cards.” – Surabhi Sanchita

  • Societally, things have shifted. If you ask the young, there’s no question of lifetime employment. Organisations will also have to change.

One key learning from each of the panellists 

  • TN Hari: The idea of boundaryless-ness and its relationship with moonlighting.
  • Surabhi Sanchita: Flexibility and transparent communication 
  • Satish Pradhan: Constructive solutioning requires a conversation among the various stakeholders. Don’t prejudge the outcome. 
  • Kavi Arasu: There’s one class we are not speaking about here—we are perhaps talking about a sophisticated problem, perhaps a first world problem.  

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Founding Fuel

Founding Fuel aims to create the new playbook of entrepreneurship. Think of us as a hub for entrepreneurs- the go-to place for ideas, insights, practices and wisdom essential to build the enterprise of tomorrow. It is co-founded by veteran journalists Indrajit Gupta and Charles Assisi, along with CS Swaminathan, the former president of Pearson's online learning venture.

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