The term “quiet quitting” emerged in March 2022, and refers to doing the bare minimal tasks of your job description well enough that you don’t get fired. The concept quickly went viral on TikTok.
Yet it only started to gain traction as an issue of concern among business leaders when government data on productivity released in August 2022 showed a sharp and unexpected drop in Q1 and Q2 of 2022. Soon after that worrisome datapoint in August, Gallup released a survey in early September indicating that as many as half of all Americans may be quiet quitters, further exacerbating business leadership concerns about this problem.
Many traditionalist leaders rushed to attribute this drop in productivity and rise in quiet quitting to remote work. For example, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink attributed the drop in productivity to remote work. He called for requiring employees to come to the office to address this problem.
Yet the claims of traditionalists don’t add up. If quiet quitting and the resultant drop in productivity stemmed from remote work, we should see a drop in productivity right from the start of the pandemic, when office workers switched to remote work. Then, when offices opened back up, especially after the Omicron wave in the end of 2021, we should see productivity going up as workers went back to the office from early 2022 onward.
In reality, we see the opposite trend. US productivity jumped in Q2 2020 as offices closed, and stayed at a heightened level through Q4 2021. Then, when companies started mandating a return to office from early 2022, productivity dropped sharply.
We find similar evidence from a July 2022 study from the highly respected National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). It found that annual productivity growth in businesses widely relying on remote work like tech and finance increased from 1.1% between 2010 and 2019 to 3.3% since the start of the pandemic. Compare that to industries relying on in-person contact, such as transportation, dining, and hospitality. They went from a productivity growth of 0.6% between 2010 and 2019 to a decrease of 2.6% since the start of the pandemic.
So what explains the drop in productivity associated with quiet quitting? According to Ben Wigert, director of research and strategy for workplace management at Gallup, forcing employees to come to the office under the threat of discipline leads to disengagement, fear, and distrust. Indeed, Gallup found that if people are required to come to the office for more time than they prefer, “employees experience significantly lower engagement, significantly lower well-being, significantly higher intent to leave [and] significantly higher levels of burnout.”
By contrast, employees feel gratitude to companies that give them more flexibility and show trust. As one such employee said, “if my company is going to come in and give me this flexibility, then I’m going to be the first to give them 100%.”
Indeed, research by Stanford University even before the pandemic found that workers who spent 4 days a week working remotely were 9% more engaged than in-office staff. Gallup finds that “the optimal engagement boost occurs when employees spend 60% to 80% of their time—or three to four days in a five-day workweek—working off-site.” The Integrated Benefits Institute found in an October 2022 survey that employees who work remotely or in a hybrid environment reported being more satisfied (20.7%) and more highly engaged (50.8%). A June 2022 Citrix survey finds that 56% of fully-remote workers feel engaged, but only 51% of in-office employees do so. The evidence is backed up by a CNBC survey from June 2022, which found that 52% of fully remote workers say they are very satisfied with their jobs, compared with 47% of workers working full-time in the office.
No wonder, then, that mandates forcing employees to come to the office result in quiet quitting. Disengaged workers aren’t productive. That’s especially the case if they’re looking for a new job, as shown by two recent surveys. The career website Zety found that 60% of respondents would quit rather than go back to an office-centric, 9-5 job. Another career website, Monster, reported that two-thirds of survey respondents would quit rather than return to the office full time. Not surprisingly, many of those who are forced to return to the office start polishing their resumes and meeting with recruiters.
Solving Quiet Quitting in the Mandated Return to Office
When I show this data to my consulting clients, they often ask me what they can do to address this problem. First of all, I remind them of a joke from the famous comedian Henny Youngman: “The patient says, ‘Doctor, it hurts when I do this.’ The doctor says, ‘Then don’t do that!’’’ The best approach for the future of work is a flexible team-led approach, where team leads make the call on work arrangements that serve the needs of their team. Team leads know best what their teams need, including how to maximize productivity, engagement, and collaboration.
However, often it’s not so easy. They might be facing an intransigent Boards of Directors, or the rest of the C-suite might be united in demanding employees return to the office for much or all of the workweek. What then?
In that case, I help them figure out best practices for returning to the office that minimize quiet quitting concerns. You might imagine that it’s as simple as paying people more. And indeed, a conversation about compensation should always accompany a return to office initiative.
For instance, research by Owl Labs suggests that it costs an average of $863/month for the average office worker to commute to work versus staying at home, which is about $432/month for utilities, office supplies, and so on. In turn, a June 2022 survey by the Society for Human Resources reports that 48% of survey respondents will “definitely” look for a full-time WFH job in their next search. To get them to stay at a full-time job with a 30-minute commute, they would need a 20% pay raise. For a hybrid job with the same commute, they would need a pay raise of 10%. A September 2022 survey by Goodhire found that 73% of workers believe companies should pay in-office workers more than remote workers.
What I find works best is to pay for fees associated with specific office-related costs, rather than a general salary increase. Thus, pay the commuting costs of your staff: IRS per diem for miles traveled, public transport fees, and so on. Pay for a nice catered lunch. Pay for their dry-cleaning costs.
Such payments help address the initial discontent and reduce the attrition typically associated with the mandated office return. But they don’t address the quiet quitting that results from people coming to the office and doing the same thing they would do at home, except with a two-hour commute.
For example, an October 2022 survey by Slack found that many knowledge workers who are required to go back to the office are spending up to four hours on video calls. Slack’s head in the UK Stuart Templeton said that employers risked turning their offices into “productivity killers,” since “making a two-hour commute to sit on video calls is a terrible use of the office.”
That’s the kind of thing that leads directly to quiet quitting. We know that people are much more productive on individual tasks that require focus at home. The survey by Slack confirmed this impression: 55% of respondents preferred to do “deep work” at home, and only 16% cited the office as a better place for deep work.
Instead, the office should be a place for socializing, collaboration, and in-depth training, especially for newer employees. To address socializing needs, it’s valuable to organize fun, novel, and out-of-the-box team-building exercises as staff come back to the office. Especially helpful are collaboration-encouraging activities such as team escape room events. Besides such one-off activities, which should be done once a month, it’s important to organize regular social events, such as weekly happy hours.
To facilitate collaboration, it’s important to consider how in-office staff work together with those working from home. A number of my clients have staff who come in on different days of the week, requiring hybrid collaboration and meetings. To facilitate such collaboration of in-office and remote staff, it helps to provide virtual office environments, which put both kinds of workers on an equal playing field.
Likewise, it’s imperative to improve AV to facilitate hybrid meetings to enable effective collaboration. Slack’s finding that office workers spend up to four hours on video calls stems in part from the fact that the awful experience of hybrid meetings leads everyone to dial in remotely even if only one participant of a meeting is remote. Fortunately, modern AV technology can help overcome this challenge and prevent remote participants from being second-class citizens.
Plenty of employees like online learning, which is great for gaining new information and technical skills. But there’s no replacement for face-to-face experiences for in-depth training around soft skills, such as effective in-person communication, conflict mediation and resolution, and ethical persuasion. My clients find that if they offer valuable training regularly once their employees return to the office, there’s a reduction in quiet quitting and a boost in employee engagement and productivity.
It’s valuable to create a formal mentoring program for newer employees once they return to the office. Make sure to have one senior staff member from the junior colleague’s immediate team. The goal of the senior person within their own team is to help the person with on-the-job learning, understanding group dynamics, and professional growth. Also include two from outside the team. One should be from the junior staff members’ business unit, and another one should be from a different unit. At least one should be located in a different geographical area. These two mentors will be needed to overcome one of the key problems in company culture for the period of remote work: the decrease in cross-functional connections across staff. Fortunately, during the epidemic, scholars discovered that connecting junior staff with a variety of senior staff was a very effective way to extend the network of junior staff. Follow this research to help junior team members fit into the broader organizational culture while also facilitating cross-company intra-team collaboration. All of the mentoring should take place in the office, to show recent hires the value of returning to the workplace.
Finally, we find it’s valuable to help staff address burnout as part of the return to office, such as by providing mental health benefits. Burnout contributes to quiet quitting, and we see a clear increase in burnout during the drive to return employees to the office. A Future Forum survey found that burnout increased from 37% in May 2022 to 43% in August 2022. In a late 2022 Gallup survey, 71% of respondents said that compared to in-office work, hybrid work improves work-life balance and 58% reported less burnout. When asked about burnout among workers who could work fully remotely, those who were fully office-centric had rates of burnout at 35% and engagement at 30%. For remote workers, the percentage for burnout was 27% and engagement was 37%, further demonstrating how the drive to return to office leads to burnout and quiet quitting.
While a mandated return to office will inevitably lead to some quiet quitting and loss in productivity, smart leaders can ameliorate this problem using best practices. Focusing on helping employees socialize, collaborate, and get great professional development and mentoring, and thus showing them the value of the office, will reduce quiet quitting and boost performance.
Original Article: Is Remote Work Responsible For Quiet Quitting? (forbes.com)