Across the world, many employees are at their wits’ end due to overworking or uninspiring work conditions. But they’re not all heading to the door. Many of them are simply ‘quiet quitting’.
In just 17 seconds, a US-based TikTok creator started a viral trend that has the potential to impact employers across the globe. It’s called ‘quiet quitting’ and, contrary to its name, it doesn’t actually have anything to do with quitting your job. Instead, it’s about rejecting the notion of going above and beyond.
“You’re still performing your duties, but you’re no longer subscribing to the hustle culture mentality that work has to be your life,” the TikToker said in his video.
The concept is said to come from China, where, last year, employees embraced what they call the ‘laying flat’ movement in a bid to rebel against arduous work hours.
TikTok, dismantling hustle culture, employees calling the shots – it all sounds very modern, but this silent disengagement from work is nothing new. It’s reminiscent of the concept of work-to-rule, a type of industrial action whereby employees perform only what’s required of them according to their contract in a bid to slow down productivity.
So if quiet quitting is just a modern version of work-to-rule action, should employers be shaking in their boots right now? Aaron McEwan FAHRI, Vice President of Research and Advisory at Gartner, doesn’t think so.
“If your growth strategy is dependent on discretionary effort – on extracting a rare commodity out of stone – that’s a really bad strategy because it’s incredibly difficult to control that,” he says.
Instead, he says we should view this movement as a necessary correction and an opportunity to create more engaging work cultures.
“The pointy end of the Great Resignation has probably passed. A lot of people quit their jobs and changed industries or professions. Now, what you’re seeing is the correction to create a sustainable way of working and living.
“Quiet quitting is just people saying, there’s more to life than work. Do I want to work to live, or live to work?”
Gartner’s data shows that quiet quitting is more than just an internet trend. It’s actually playing out. In the second quarter of 2022, employees’ discretionary efforts fell from 17 per cent in the previous quarter to 15 per cent on average.
This drop occurred against an interesting talent backdrop.
“While willingness to go above and beyond is declining, intent to stay with an employer is increasing,” says McEwan.
That’s what you’d expect to see in an economic environment where a recession has been predicted, he says, even if it doesn’t eventuate. When people deem the economy to be rocky, they look for stability at work and they stay put.
“Quiet quitting is just people saying, there’s more to life than work. Do I want to work to live, or live to work?”– Aaron McEwan FAHRI, Gartner
That probably rings alarm bells for employers, as it suggests they could be facing a wave of presenteeism, combined with record-high absenteeism due to COVID-19 infections and general talent shortages. Now more than ever, we need workforces that are switched on, charged up and ready to add value.
This was the only way many businesses were able to stay afloat during the pandemic; employees often had to work outside the bounds of their job descriptions. This isn’t necessarily the employers’ fault. No one could have predicted what it would be like to run a business in 2020-2021.
However, the prolonged period of instability spawned a workaholic culture, says McEwan. And, prior to the pandemic, consumeristic pursuits were already setting the scene for a ‘work hard, play hard’ culture, he adds.
So perhaps we were already on a slippery slope and the pandemic just sped up the quiet quitting movement.
Is ‘quiet quitting’ here to stay?
Unlike other internet trends, this doesn’t appear to be something that will fade into the distance in the next few weeks, says McEwan.
“My personal view, and this is nothing more than informed speculation, is that this is a more robust phenomenon that will outlast the economic cycle.”
This is partly because it aligns with broader themes that have emerged since the pandemic about decoupling from work, and also because it’s representative of the natural bell curve to emerge after years of employees working faster, harder and later to help their organisation’s weather the storm.
“Everybody stepped up to the plate. They dealt with disruption and changes to the way they worked and they learnt new digital skills. Most of the data shows that organisations experienced very significant productivity gains from this.
“Then you look at the real data on working hours through the pandemic. Australians, on average, were working six additional hours every week, and that would be a conservative figure.”
Quiet quitting could simply be a natural recalibration that workers had to bring forth in order to avoid complete burnout. And while we may see discretionary effort rise if a recession comes to fruition, as people fight to stay off the chopping block, McEwan says employers shouldn’t bank on it.
“If we consider the definition of discretionary effort, it’s going above and beyond what you are expected to do and what you’re paid to do. So, as inflationary pressures continue to eat into any wage increase gains we’ve been getting, I think people will start to consider if it’s worth putting in additional effort.
“There’s nothing like an existential crisis, and we’ve been through several of them, to remind you of the fragility of your health and your life.”
The pandemic, the bushfires, the succession of supposedly once-in-a-lifetime floods and ongoing international conflict – there’s a lot going on at once, says McEwan.
“That’s all making people think very deeply about where they invest their limited time, energy and effort. I think work is not as prominent as it used to be.
“Maybe work won’t be the centre of people’s lives moving forward. There might be a lot of executive leaders out there thinking, ‘How do we deal with this?’, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing.”
Hear more from Aaron McEwan at AHRI’s Convention on 15-17 August 2022. Registration closes on Wednesday 10 August, so don’t miss out. Book now.
Responding to the correction
These large-scale, global work movements – the Great Resignation, a rejection of businesses that don’t offer flexible work, and now, quiet quitting – represent opportunities for certain companies to lead the pack in terms of negotiating a new deal with employees. It’s a chance to fundamentally change work for the better and design win-win solutions for workers and business alike.
McEwan shares some food for thought to kick-start your approach to design more engaging and productive work cultures:
1. Reflect on where you can eliminate organisational drag
Think about the tasks employees were doing during the thick of the pandemic when they were putting in high discretionary effort.
“Was it high-value adding work? Or was it just another report? This isn’t a chance to think about how to extract more from people with less, but rather how to reduce the amount of unnecessary labour.”
McEwan calls this reducing ‘friction points’. At AHRI’s 2020 Convention, he quoted Gartner research which suggested that on top of the 2-3 hours of overtime most people were doing each day, employees wasted another 1.9 hours each day trying to navigate systems to do their jobs.
Assess which processes need to be reconsidered, what can be cut, and where you may need to make investments to reduce the amount of friction points employees face each day, either via technology or extra people power.
2. Don’t underestimate the role of social media
By 2025, 75 per cent of the workforce is expected to be made up of millennials. And by 2030, Gen Z will account for roughly a third of the Australian workforce.
Even though these two generations have slightly different views about work – for example, research suggests that millennials are the most likely to overwork – this is still a combined demographic that’s less likely to subscribe to the hyper-productive work mentality that many before them have set and adhered to.
“If you had a problem with your employer or your job in the past, and you raised that, it would have been dealt with behind closed doors,” says McEwan.
“Today, you can film your boss and put it on TikTok. About 18 months ago, I predicted that we’d see both managers and companies being ‘cancelled’ based on poor behaviours.”
This collectivization that was once only achieved via a union membership can now also be replicated in the social media world. That means this new-found power employees have discovered could very well stay in their hands.
3. Make sure to adequately resource your teams
This is one of the biggest factors in creating an environment where employees can add value and be freed up to think innovatively, says McEwan.
“It’s very hard to do your best work when you’re overworked, when you’re lacking sleep and when you’re unhealthy.”
“We have to treat employees like human beings and give them sustainable workloads.”
4. Make the work more exciting
If employees are disengaging from their work, perhaps it’s not interesting enough.
Keep job design in mind when creating new roles in your business, and take the time to assess people’s existing roles to ensure you’re giving employees the opportunities to utilise a wide range of skills each day.
(Resources: read HRM’s guides to designing compelling jobs with the SMART work model and keeping engagement high with a remote workforce).
5. Incentivise employees differently
The fact that it’s no longer a given that employees will go above and beyond shouldn’t be considered a repudiation of your agreement with them. It should signal that you need to reconsider what you’re putting on the table.
“The data shows us that people haven’t been getting promoted and they’ve not been getting pay raises. What they’ve been getting is additional responsibilities, as the talent squeeze means that most teams are understaffed and under-resourced. And we’re seeing that wages are not rising in line with inflation.
“I’m certainly not promoting the idea that people should slack off. But if they’re doing what they’re paid to do, and you want them to do more, you probably have to look at what’s in it for them.”
While pay rises might not be on the cards due to financial pressures, McEwan says there’s myriad other things employers can offer, including: career progression that aligns with their goals, training and development opportunities, having great managers to guide them, time to pursue personal goals or coaching/mentoring opportunities.
(Resources: read HRM’s articles on innovative ways to reward employees beyond offering more money and the research-backed benefits of giving people more time in their days).
“There’s a whole bunch of levers that organisations can pull that have a direct impact on discretionary effort. And I would argue that over the last 20 years, many of those things have been neglected.”
The pandemic has been a reminder that work is a two-way deal between employers and employees. The quiet quitting phenomenon is just a reminder for organisations to hold up their end of the bargain.