Quiet Quitting Is a Clear Call to Repair Employee Engagement

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Quiet quitting has become a growing phenomenon thanks in part to social media, with TikTok and YouTube among the biggest influencers. But before we embark on a deep dive into the rise of one of the largest shifts ever in employee attitudes about work, let’s take a step back and reflect on what our workers have been through in the past two years. It may provide some perspective.

Past Tense

The pandemic hit the U.S. landscape in a major way in 2020. Many businesses closed and many employees were laid off. Those who continued working had to adapt to new workplace rules including daily testing, social distancing, and substantial changes to both scope of work and work policies. Many who did not catch Covid (or caught Covid but had mild symptoms) found themselves taking care of relatives who became seriously ill with Covid. In many cases, the younger family members, with milder symptoms on average than their older relatives, had to pick up some of the slack in terms of family duties and income generation.

Quiet quitting is a clear and present reminder that success is the result of empathy, sensitivity to individuals (not everyone lumped together) and the ability to operate with a collaborative shared purpose that doesn’t sacrifice the individual with the demands of the group.

And on top of all of this, most people were partially or totally shut off from the world, often sequestered in their homes, isolated from friends and family members outside their households. Students across America were thrown into a remote teaching environment with many parents becoming teacher assistants or even assuming many of the teachers’ responsibilities. College students moved back home, adding more complexities to the household environment.

As people settled in over the next year going into 2021, remote work revealed its many benefits: for example, the elimination of time (and money) spent on commuting, being able to work in pajamas, having a private bathroom and taking care of family duties without the stress of being away at the office. Balancing life/work became easier although many workers experienced an elongated day and boundaries between work and home life became more blurred. In 2022, workers are being told to head back to the office (at least in some limited capacity), as “hybrid” work schedules are becoming popular.

Workers Woes

Let’s face it, workers have been through a lot these past two years. It’s no wonder that many workers, especially younger generations, are adopting a “quiet quitting” mentality. Many employees are emotionally taxed and depleted, the pandemic having sucked some of the life and energy out of them, dulling their work ambitions. The emotional and physical toll has been extreme in many cases. Now, employees want to set boundaries between work and home life; they want to work within a certain time frame and, in some cases, contribute the bare minimum that the job requires.

Quitting Quietly

A cascade of reports about Quiet Quitting hit our inboxes after it was socialized on TikTok in July. It soon became the darling of cultural observers and journalists … and the bane of HR teams. So, what is the fuss about? Ambivalent employment has been around for ages; quiet quitting has gained traction as the corollary to The Great Resignation.

So, a definition of quiet quitting: Technically, quiet quitting is doing the least amount of work possible. It doesn’t necessarily mean employees have checked out, but they are definitely setting boundaries and controlling their engagement levels. With a workforce doing the bare minimum based on their ethos that they work to live, not live to work, the resounding choruses of needing life/work balance have shattered traditionalists’ definition and opinion of “work.” Quiet quitters have become the Silent Resistance.

Gallup research reports that at least half of the U.S. workforce is quiet quitting. The report cites that the workplace during the pandemic got worse for younger workers. “The trend toward quiet quitting — the idea spreading virally on social media that millions of people are not going above and beyond at work and just meeting their job description — could get worse. U.S. employee engagement took another step backward during the second quarter of 2022, with the proportion of engaged workers remaining at 32% but the proportion of actively disengaged increasing to 18%. The ratio of engaged to actively disengaged employees is now 1.8 to 1, the lowest in almost a decade.”

Worker’s Choice

One factor that is boosting the confidence of quiet quitters is a tight labor market. Fewer people are getting laid off or fired and there are worker shortages in many industries. Workers are questioning if they should go above and beyond to prove themselves at work while sacrificing part of their personal lives. Many people feel they gave up two years of their life to the pandemic, and now they want to start living again with a focus on life/work balance. It makes perfect sense. But this is only half the story.

As mentioned, quiet quitting can be about setting boundaries and making sure to balance out the life components with work. However, a much deeper concern looms out there for employers. Quiet quitters are typically employees who are less engaged at work, believing the need to over perform and over deliver are on the way out with a “I’m not going to take it anymore” mentality. These quiet quitters can do great harm to a company’s culture. When management is not listening to employee concerns and not taking actions to address them, engagement levels take a nosedive and workers become disgruntled. Some start unions to make sure their rights are being protected; others quit but there is a growing group of disengaged employees that are just quiet quitters.

There’s a practical aspect to it; not all employees can quit – there may be nowhere to go. Quiet quitting buys some time, and as long as workers are doing the minimum without criticism from management, they pull it off. They put in the minimum amount of work to get the job done while passively looking for a new job. To the chagrin of older colleagues, quiet quitters are demonstrating minimal emotional investment in work and/or are seeking to define their concept of a career outside of the context of a traditional organizational ladder. The attitude is also a manifestation of anti-ambition, another millennial/Gen Z touchstone.

Quiet Quitting Signs

A key warning sign is that the next-gen workforce is serious about changing workplace dynamics and insisting on balance between life and work. Behaviors of quiet quitting include coming late to work and/or leaving early, not taking on extra projects or assignments, participating less in meetings, contributing less to group or team projects, or not providing feedback to supervisors. The problem is that the company culture depends on interaction, teamwork, and employee contributions. When co-workers see others putting in less effort, there is friction in the workplace. Customers can be impacted by reduced service levels when workers don’t go above and beyond. Management has to take on more responsibility to fill in the gaps. Systems and work flow can be derailed without the necessary support to respond to market conditions with an ambivalent workforce.

Managing Quiet Quitters

Management has a call to action to determine the quiet quitters in their workforce and address a range of issues. Who feels undervalued and underappreciated? Who is suffering from mental health life/work balance issues? Who has screen fatigue?

Active listening and empathy are key in a first step. Ask employees to describe what an employee centered environment looks like to them. Offer opportunities for advancement and cross training and create a workplace culture that is based on the idea that work is not the only thing in life. Trust and mutual commitment between management and employees engenders a positive environment. Collaboration, honestly, openness and authenticity are the new management tools.

Identifying quiet quitters in the company’s workforce is critical. Understanding the root causes and responding with relevant solutions will positively impact employee engagement, company culture and turnover. Quiet quitting is a clear and present reminder that success is the result of empathy, sensitivity to individuals (not everyone lumped together) and the ability to operate with a collaborative shared purpose that doesn’t sacrifice the individual with the demands of the group.

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