When the new phrase “Quiet Quitting” began to surface on social media, my colleagues and I discussed the idea and sought to understand the meaning and trends. In addition to considering the concept, we wondered how a workforce concept can quickly rise from casual TikTok posts to a trending management concept in the Harvard Business Review. Over the last year, several researchers have noted the increased human capital focus related to well-being in the workplace and we have witnessed survey results indicating lower engagement around the world. So, it is perhaps not surprising that the sentiment of today’s workforce quickly resonated with this new alliteration coined as “Quiet Quitting.”
After some review, it seems that this phrase is used in two different ways. One concept is removing yourself from the “climb the ladder” mindset or decelerating career ambition to focus more on other aspects of life. This is often considered a rebalancing. We sometimes see this with new parents, for example, who value time with their new child more than spending overtime hours at the office. Certain life events can also trigger this type of rebalancing. In the US, we witnessed this with the 9/11 terror attacks and we see this in other parts of the world associated with natural disasters, wars, and other life-changing events. So, while this concept is not new, the phrase “quiet quitting” has caught on as it captures the impact of the pandemic on the lives of many people. Around the world, scores of individuals and families are making life changes as a result of their experience and reflection during the COVID-19 outbreak.
The other way that the term “Quiet Quitting” is being used is less positive in nature. In this context, people who are not happy with their job or employer may decide to put in minimal effort. Some might phrase this as slowing the work effort, but keeping the paycheck. In this interpretation, people are doing the bare minimum, perhaps a step short of actively trying to get fired.
Because of these two very different meanings, the conversations about “quiet quitting” can be unclear. The two ways of thinking about the same term can create confusion. Keeping with the idea of alliteration to describe the phenomenon, perhaps we could use the phases of “Career Coasting” and “Boundary Balancing” to address aspects of the first definition. In this case, a person may temper ambitions while still meeting expectations by taking measures to contain work hours and managing work-life pressures.
The other meaning could be called “Revenge Recalibrating.” In this case, a person may be using the work modalities or talent shortages to take advantage of the employer by not working to full potential. “Cyber-loafing” is also a term we’ve seen used to describe people who are doing other things while working online. While these concepts may not be new, the ideas seem to really resonate with people today.
One of the reasons for the acceptance and ideas associated with these concepts can be traced to the common experience of the pandemic. When an entire population experiences a significant phenomenon, we call this a “cohort effect,” a unique and unprecedented period of time when an entire population experiences life-changing events simultaneously. If we go back in time, we see the cohort effect make an impact on society and work during the world wars and the Great Depression.
These are significant events that change people’s outlook and mindset. The coronavirus pandemic has been a cohort effect as it affected the entire population on the planet in some way. As a result, the concept of quiet quitting is resonating because it’s been a time of reflection as people reassess their priorities and consider the fragile nature of humanity. We have also seen a new emphasis on well-being, which is aligned with the idea of people taking better care of themselves.
Some researchers have highlighted generational differences in the workplace. While we may see Gen Z leading the social media-infused quiet-quitting conversation, the concept is resonating with older generations as well. Evidence suggests that people who have become tired of the busy corporate work life may be downsizing and simplifying their lives.
It is noteworthy, however, that the “Revenge Recalibrating” concept of quiet quitting and the “don’t try” mindset, is receiving some backlash from older workers who have previously poured their time and energy into their jobs. There is still a sense that young workers should be focused on getting the right start in their careers by working hard.
One of the potential hazards of social media trends is the lure of an idea without understanding the consequences. Before jumping on board with quiet quitting, employees need to consider the long-term impact of their actions. Most people take pride in what they do and naturally have dreams and aspirations they wish to accomplish. People may think: “Wouldn’t it be great to be the boss someday” or “I’d like to earn a certain salary so I can afford to do something special.” Pulling back or “Career Coasting” early in life could bring consequences that affect the long-term career path, earnings, and expectations. It’s important to think about future satisfaction as well as the situation today.
Quiet quitting could also stir up internal tension for some people, particularly high achievers. As much as one may want to scale back on work, it is easy to feel still that pressure to create a good work product and maintain stature, not to mention avoiding the potential for letting down colleagues. The internal narrative might be: “I promised myself I wouldn’t do this, but here I am working at 10 p.m. to finish this presentation because it’s not where it needs to be, and this is a reflection of my work.”
Does this hype on the quiet quitting amount to a trendy topic or a fun framing of an existing situation? After a review, I would suggest it is a bit of both. While there are many considerations for workers who are re-evaluating their careers and priorities, there are significant implications for employers working to improve engagement, motivation, and retention of their workforces.
It seems that many employers have more work to do as they consider the impact of the pandemic on workplace well-being. Some workplaces are allowing more remote work, more flexibility, and new models of working. However, many organisations have not addressed the well-being needs that people used to find in the workplace, which may not be available. Much of this has to do with social interaction, psychological safety, and the social cohesion of the office that creates a sense of belonging. So how do employers foster that in our new reality?
It seems that employers that are working to create deliberate and informal interactions are on the right track. It is important to create and foster a workplace culture that keeps people engaged and motivated toward goals. It is a good opportunity to “Re-recruit” employees and discusses what creates a mutually beneficial arrangement to create a positive outlook toward work.
This happens not through elaborate company-wide events but through more casual interactions with people at an individual level. Leaders need to find ways to create more purposeful opportunities for people to get together to collaborate, innovate, or socialise. After all, change happens one person at a time.