Learning & Development, Recruiting

Want to Solve Quiet Quitting? Focus on Employee Engagement

If you’ve been wondering whether the “quiet quitting” phenomenon is still occurring, wonder no more. According to a new Gallup poll, at least half of the U.S. workforce is currently quiet quitting. Yes, you read that correctly: half, as in 50%, probably more. Quiet quitting is still very much, as young folks might say, “a thing.” From employers’ perspective, this is clearly a big problem. A recent Conference Board study found that quiet quitting would cost businesses $450 billion to $500 billion a year in the United States alone and up to $1.5 trillion worldwide. Given this information, what can organizations do to mitigate the problem? Certainly, the best way is to address the core causes of the problem, and to do that, it’s helpful to remember why quiet quitting happens in the first place.

It’s All About Engagement

Don’t be fooled by novel terminology. Despite the fact that the topic of quiet quitting has been trending for the past year or so, there’s nothing new about it. At its heart, quiet quitting is really just an issue of employee disengagement, which has been occurring for decades and has been formally studied by experts in the field of management science since the 1990s.

Why do workers become disengaged? There are many possible reasons, and it really depends on the particular employee and situation. For some employees, it might be about not getting the recognition they feel they deserve. For others, it might be not being given enough autonomy. Often, it’s some combination of a number of factors, and the frustration tends to build up over time until, eventually, the employees disengage. But the common denominator is that in some way or another, the employees are not getting something they want or need. So call it disengagement or call it quiet quitting, but the causes and effects are the same.

Returning to the Office: A Real-World Example

For a useful discussion of ways to mitigate quiet quitting and disengagement, it may be helpful to use a specific situation in which we actually are seeing quiet quitting occurring. I propose that a widely relatable situation right now is returning to the office. Throughout this year, many employers have been asking workers to return to the office, sometimes even setting ultimatums. However, many employees either have gone back to the office only to end up disappointed or have been so reluctant to return that they’ve stated they’d rather quit.

I recently completed a consulting project for an organization that had similarly asked its employees to return to the office on a regular basis around the time many other companies were doing the same. Throughout this monthslong project, I was able to directly observe a number of reasons employees, despite being initially excited to reunite with their colleagues, were becoming frustrated. And while my task wasn’t to measure disengagement, we know from existing research that negative emotions such as frustration and dissatisfaction can lead to disengagement.

One common reason for frustration was the increased costs of going into the office versus working remotely, including higher gas prices; more expensive lunches (or “lunchflation”); new work clothes; the costs of child care for those who were no longer able to pick up their children after school; and even, in some cases, having to pay for parking. Then, of course, there was the added time of commuting, which had previously been freed up to do other things while working from home, such as squeezing in quick chores like doing a load of laundry in between work tasks.

Another major cause of frustration had to do with the work environment. A lot of employees found, once they were resituated in their physical workplaces, that the offices they left in March 2020 are actually very noisy and full of distractions and interruptions. Quite simply, many had gotten used to working from home, where, if not free of noise and interruptions, they at least had more environmental control.

Then there was the realization that, for many employees, because so much of their work these days involved using remote tools anyway, they were coming into the office just to be on Zoom or Microsoft® Teams the whole time, which they could do just as easily—if not more easily—from their home office. Pragmatically speaking, not every employee or team has an equal need to physically be in the office, and those who don’t may be quite annoyed if they are required to be.

Finally, one of the biggest sources of frustration employees experience in this scenario is that a significant degree of autonomy is being taken away from them. Autonomy over one’s work is a key element of engagement, and losing the autonomy and flexibility employees had grown accustomed to during the pandemic has been a tough pill for them to swallow.

Reducing Disengagement (and, Hence, Quiet Quitting)

It goes without saying that the specific ways to reduce disengagement and quiet quitting at any given company depend on the specific circumstances. But, because returning to the office is such a widespread situation at the moment, it’s a useful scenario to use. Given how strongly many workers feel about the issue, I would also be surprised if a significant portion of the quiet quitting we’re seeing isn’t a direct result of the compulsory approaches many companies have been using to get their employees back in the physical workplace.

For a range of possible reasons, people may not want to come back to the office at all. Perhaps the employer has its own valid reasons for wanting everyone to come back, but problems occur when there’s no flexibility or when the same set of guidelines is universally applied to everyone. Does it have to be all 5 workdays, for example? Can it not be 2 or 3 out of 5, and instead of the same 2 days for everyone, can it not be days the employees and their teams choose based on how they work best? Organizational leaders’ simply meeting employees halfway—and giving them a sense of control—can do wonders for employee engagement.

Even for the employees who are mostly open to the idea of being back in the office, if you do not make it worth their while, given the increased investment in time and money that commuting involves, frustration and disengagement may follow. What does “making it worth their while” mean? Of course, it depends on the circumstances and what you’re realistically able to offer, but think about what would be meaningful to your employees. What would show them you’re listening to them and hearing their concerns? It could mean offering a small stipend for gas and/or parking, for example. Or, it could mean offering more opportunities: social, educational, career-oriented, or likely some combination. One of the things a lot of people have worried about regarding working from home, for instance, is not getting enough face time with management. If they’re coming into the office but still not getting that face time, they may wonder why they’re coming in.

Another potential way to make the office worth employees’ while is to make it a more pleasing and productive place to work. Think about what makes people’s homes appealing places to work. Generally, people tend to have more control over the environment in their homes (i.e., lighting, temperature, sounds); snacks, beverages, and comfortable seating are readily available; and they can easily move from space to space depending on their task needs and perhaps go outside for a quick walk or breath of fresh air to boost their energy. Providing employees with some of these features in the office, including a variety of workstations such as social spaces, team spaces, and quiet pods to accommodate their various task needs, affords employees with some of the comforts and benefits of working from home.

The bottom line is that in order to reduce disengagement and quiet quitting, employers must understand what it is their employees really want from their employment and work with them to see that they get it as much as possible. One of the best ways to determine employee needs on a larger scale is through employee surveys, which allow employees to give honest feedback anonymously about their needs and how well those needs are being met. Focus groups may also be useful to get a general sense of employee needs, but one-on-one meetings between employees and their managers are really vital to their being able to express their own unique situations and needs. Regardless of the method, employers must be genuinely open to employee feedback and willing to make some significant adjustments based on it.

At the end of the day, when faced with disengagement, employers can choose to stick to their guns and stubbornly maintain the status quo if they like, but the quiet quitting and resulting loss of productivity—and, therefore, revenue—will continue its downward spiral. A more effective strategy? “Hey, let’s talk.”

Meredith Wells Lepley, PhD, is an Associate Professor of the practice of psychology in the online Master of Science in Applied Psychology program at the University of Southern California. 

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