Quiet quitting has gone viral – not just on social media, but among employees signing up to the idea they shouldn't be working beyond their contracted hours or taking on extra duties. How many are doing so? HR will never know.
The phenomenon is a demonstration both of the power of social media, and an underlying feeling among groups of employees that the employment ‘deal’, the unspoken contract, isn’t working for them. All it took was a post from an American on TikTok with the message that ‘work is not your life’. There’s nothing new about the sentiment; the ‘idler’ movement has been around for decades. Even in China there has been the (now banned) ‘tang ping’ (lie flat) campaign on Twitter. The difference is that the message has resonated so widely, among young workers in particular, less used to the unspoken contract. But the suspicion is that quiet quitting is appealing more widely, with more serious questions about the actual returns on working extra hours, checking emails out of hours or other forms of discretionary effort. If employers have done little to improve work-life balance, as the argument goes, why shouldn’t individuals redress the balance for themselves?
The question for the HR profession is whether quiet quitting is a genuine issue of wellbeing, or just an inappropriate protest by ‘entitled’ members of staff that needs squashing? Should management be using disciplinary processes to expose and punish staff, just as they would with any other performance problem? Either way, it's not good news for HR teams pushing to boost productivity.
Research from the US, the home of quiet quitting, suggests the problem is rooted in management methods. Work just published in the Harvard Business Review argues that the least effective managers have three to four times as many line reports who are quiet quitters: 14 per cent of direct reports, and only 20 per cent willing to put in extra effort. The conclusion of researchers was that the most important factor involved in relationships was trust. In other words, leaders need to have positive relationships with their staff.
It’s all a bit obvious. And also a bit too easy to just blame underperforming managers again. The real challenge here is about the sense of belonging. Quiet quitting happens because of a general disengagement, a weakening in the sense of community, of people all working together and supporting each other – of the employer having their best interests at heart.
What UK workplaces need is a quiet rehiring. And that happens with better workplace conversations, openness and an active demonstration of trust and understanding of problems and concerns. We need more ‘conversational integrity’ among both management and staff: better conversation skills that equip us to be resilient and adaptable, to appreciate the benefits of different views and different people.
Post pandemic, workplace relationships have been left to dwindle. Employees in general have become less attached to physical workplaces and, in many ways, also to each other. Consequently, employees are less rooted in the codes and identities provided by a daily place of work and its routines. Fewer team activities, more e-learning. All of this means that the usual to and fro of work conversations has changed.
In practice HR needs to find ways to encourage more regular, open conversations; avoid over-reliance on digital communications; ensure all employees, and managers in particular, have the skills to deal with more ‘difficult’ conversations and appreciate the value of challenge; get leaders to set a good example.
Only through a culture of good conversations will workplaces be able to generate that all-important sense of belonging – the feeling that can fill in many of the cracks that are appearing in the employer-employee relationship.
Arran Heal is managing director of CMP