Joanne Esch and Andrea Bowens-Jones
It’s hard to ignore the trendy headlines and wide range of reactions and emotions related to the topic of “quiet quitting.” The conversation points to two pressing concerns: worker (dis)engagement in corporate cultures, and employer anxiety about remote work and perceived low productivity that some have termed “productivity paranoia.”
When unenthusiastic workers began sharing stories about separating their identities from their work, prioritizing “work-life balance” over career ambition, and choosing to do the bare minimum, it provoked a strong reaction from bosses who feared an epidemic of remote workers doing less than the bare minimum.
Although this notion of “quiet quitting” is nothing new, in the context of a changing workforce it does point to a much-needed conversation about workplace culture, identity, inclusivity, and a reconfiguring of what work productivity can look like and how it can be assessed.
What can be learned from research? Let’s start with some recent indicators of productivity and engagement among remote and hybrid workers.
Microsoft reported that 87% of the rank and file say they’re just as productive at home, but 85% of leaders say the shift to hybrid work has made it challenging to have confidence their employees are being productive (Work Trend Index Pulse survey of 20,000 knowledge workers).
Meanwhile, Microsoft says, office 365 data suggests greater productivity — more hours worked, more meetings, more multitasking.
In another large survey, 55% of respondents reported working more hours remotely than in the office (compared to only 12% who reported working fewer hours).
90% said they were as — or more — productive at home (OwlLabs, 2021 survey of 2,050 full-time workers).
Gallup reported a small overall increase in the ratio of “actively disengaged” to “engaged” workers in its most recent survey but found hybrid and remote workers to be more engaged than on-site workers.
Government data shows a slump in workforce-wide productivity in 2022, following decades of growth, and in the context of continued supply-chain disruptions and other unique economic circumstances.
In short, there is no evidence of reduced productivity or engagement among remote workers — if anything, the reverse is true. So we ought to dispense with the idea that remote work is a panacea for quiet quitters. There are some indications of a modest decrease in productivity and engagement workforce-wide, though this is not necessarily attributable to “quiet quitting.”
The missing focus in this conversation is attention to building inclusive cultures in technology organizations. In our research at NCWIT, we define culture as a “shared set of norms and values within an organization.” Unfortunately, we don’t all experience the same workplace culture. For example, women of color are denied access to opportunities, fight feelings of exclusion, fall victim to prove-it-again bias, and are left with more office housework tasks (see, e.g., Williams, Korn, & Ghani, 2022). As a result, they must work harder to be perceived as competent and receive the same level of respect as their peers. Thus, non-majority groups stand a far greater chance of being negatively impacted by “productivity paranoia” and other aspects of perceived “quiet quitting” in the workplace than majority groups.
Reacting to suspected disengagement or low productivity by doing things that we know diminish employee engagement can further erode an inclusive culture. Despite sensational headlines and social media posts about “quiet quitting,” we need to continue to create and nurture inclusive cultures in technology organizations that:
Support people in doing the best work of their lives.
Support people in finding satisfaction, meaning, and connection through work.
Support people in finding work/life integration/balance that works for them.
Continue working to ensure equitable access to resources that help people do their best work.
These include, for example, meaningful project assignments, opportunities to contribute their ideas and influence decisions, valued roles on teams,
and quality coaching, mentoring, sponsorship, and development opportunities.
However, some employees actually do “quiet quit” as it’s defined, and can do so either while working remotely or in the office; the techniques may just be different but the intention is the same. When employees intentionally don’t fulfill work obligations, they can have a negative impact on the company and their colleagues, who often must pick up the slack.
Here Are a Few Tips for Managers Who Believe They Are Dealing With “Quiet Quitters:”
- Use a spirit of inquiry in employee conversations — don’t assume people are “quiet quitters” without an in-depth dialogue, and consider how bias and exclusion might affect access to resources that support employees in doing their best work.
- Consider increasing one-on-one time with employees until a mutually agreeable work cadence and output are established.
- Scrutinize your assumptions about who is and is not productive — be mindful of proximity and other types of biases experienced by members of non-majority groups.
- Offer options as to when and where people work as appropriate to the needs of the business — recognize people experience workplaces differently, and a “one
size fits all” approach may not be beneficial.
- Practice collaborative goal setting and accountability (e.g., as part of the performance evaluation process) to ensure clear goals and outcomes have been set.
- When you think about productivity or engagement, also ask about resources and opportunities; pay attention to task assignment and work distribution patterns.
For more research-based tips and how-to guides related to workplace inclusion visit ncwit.org/resources.
When researchers analyzed data from more than 113,000 leaders to find the top behavior that helps effective leaders balance results with their concern for team members, the number one behavior that helped was trust. When direct reports trusted their leader, they also assumed that the manager cared about them and was concerned about their wellbeing.
Managers who were rated highest on balancing relationships saw only 3% of their employees quietly quitting.
Trust was linked to three behaviors:
- Positive relationships with all direct reports
- Consistency and honesty
- Expertise — providing clarity and a path forward for direct reports