Quiet quitting. It’s a phrase that strikes fear in the hearts of business leaders and galvanizes burned out employees. But in contrast to its name, quiet quitting isn’t actually about quitting. Instead, it’s an employee’s decision to only complete tasks that are within their job description while setting boundaries around working extra or going above and beyond for the team.
Quiet quitters frame the trend as a way to push back against a hustle culture that extracts more value from its workers than it provides, while employers often use it as a reason to bring everyone back into the office under the watchful eye of management. But neither the root of the problem or its solution is quite so simple.
At first glance, it might be easy to frame quiet quitting as a symptom of a younger, entitled workforce, but a deeper look at the trend reveals a broader issue. Older Millennial and Gen X workers may not have had the same language to describe it, but they, too, have been celebrating this phenomenon since the 1990s cult classic film Office Space, which depicted the monotony of corporate cubicle life, complete with an inane boss and a software engineer named Peter who eventually destroys a low-functioning fax machine with a baseball bat. Peter’s decision to coast through the work day—refusing to work weekends, hiding from his supervisor and never going the extra mile—are representative of a similar emotional detachment from work that is rampant in quiet quitters.
A new study from Gallup quantified this “coasting culture,” finding that more than half of all American workers are doing the bare minimum at work, or quiet quitting. What leaders may find even more disturbing: only one in three managers described themselves as emotionally or psychologically engaged at work.
Quiet quitting isn’t a generational problem, and an unemployment rate below 4% disproves theories that people “just don’t want to work.” So why is most of the American workforce phoning it in at the office?
“Before the pandemic, the employee engagement rates were really low,” said Libby Rodney, Chief Strategy Officer at The Harris Poll Thought Leadership Practice, on the podcast “America This Week,” co-hosted by Rodney and John Gerzema, CEO of The Harris Poll. “There was a massive burnout in workplace culture, and even the World Health Organization deemed it a critical thing that corporate workplaces had to solve. The pandemic just put fuel on that, and we all had to run and sprint through this time, and maybe now we’re in more of a marathon. It’s up to companies to get people excited to be working.”
Many employers have made strides to build that excitement, but no amount of free lunches or casual Fridays can make up for a workforce that is being led by managers who themselves are already mentally checked out. Add a hybrid or remote infrastructure into the mix, and the situation is even more dire. The Gallup study discovered that less than four in ten young remote or hybrid employees clearly know what is expected of them at work, and yet a Harris Poll conducted by Bloomberg News found that among remote or hybrid working adults, 57% of Millennials say they would quit if they were forced to work five days a week in the office.
The solution? With these data points, Gallup described quiet quitting as a clear symptom of poor management, stating that senior leadership needs to take the time to reskill managers to lead well in the new hybrid environment and guide them to have meaningful, weekly conversations with their team members. From there, creating individual performance goals can help employees see how their work contributes to the larger goals of the organization.
More than a system of accountability, however, there is also a need for a more holistic view of this phenomenon. Senior leaders must take into account the workplace environments they have created and ask themselves if employees feel like they matter and are being appropriately compensated for their time. Employers who want a team of people who go the extra mile, should start by doing so themselves.