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Quiet quitting and employee engagement - what you need to know

By Alistair Cox, CEO of Hays

If you’ve read any news articles online, or picked up a newspaper in recent weeks, chances are you’ve heard about quiet quitting – the work-place phenomenon that has recently taken over TikTok.

To some, quiet quitting means refusing to go above and beyond at work. It is a rejection of the hustle culture. To others, it means setting boundaries to improve their work-life balance.

I have talked in depth about how much the world of work has changed in recent years. The Covid-19 pandemic has shifted people’s priorities and made many of us re-evaluate what we want from our lives, and from our work.

Just like the Great Resignation, quiet quitting is coming to the fore, partly because of these changes. In fact, some commentators believe quiet quitting is the next stage of the Great Resignation. Whilst some are resigning completely, others are choosing to quietly quit by resetting their boundaries and delivering only on exactly what their job requires.

Quiet quitting follows the “lying flat” movement in China. As this report by the BBC said: “The idea of ‘lying flat’, or tang ping in Chinese, means taking a break from relentless work. The tang ping movement took off during 2021 as many felt they were coming under increasing pressure to work even harder and out perform their peers.”

But what does quiet quitting mean for your business? As leaders, how do you know if it is happening in your organisation and affecting employee engagement? Chances are it is, so are you ready to tackle the issue?

Quiet quitting and productivity

We all want our workforces to feel connected to the work they’re doing, all the time. The global economic situation is such that we need engaged and motivated workforces more than ever. That does not mean we should be expecting our employees to be overworked and risking burnout.

What is true right now is that productivity levels have fallen. In the USA, nonfarm worker productivity in the second quarter fell 2.5 per cent since the same period last year. This is the steepest annual drop since 1948, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Globally, labour productivity stagnated in 2021 and is forecast to do the same this year. According to the Conference Board:“The lack of productivity growth in 2022 is driven in large part by the impact of the war in Ukraine…Furthermore, lingering effects of the pandemic—driven by slowing growth in goods consumption and service sector activities with below-average productivity levels coming back online —will likely weigh negatively on 2022 growth rates.”

On top of this, job dissatisfaction is at an all-time high in the States. The State of the Global Workplace report by Gallup reported that unhappy and disengaged staff cost the world economy an incredible $7.8 trillion!

How can I spot quiet quitting in my workplace?

Managers and business leaders need to first consider if quiet quitting is an issue in their organisations. But what are the clear signs that quiet quitting is happening?

In a recent interview with Forbes, Joe Galvin, Chief Research Officer at Vistage Worldwide listed the below as key signs of a quiet quitter:

  1. “Disengagement on a chronic basis.
  2. Performance only to the minimum set of performance standards
  3. Isolation from other members of the team
  4. Withdrawal from any non-necessary conversations, activities or tasks
  5. Attendance at meetings but not speaking up or taking action
  6. Teammates report a sudden increase in their workload in having to pick up the slack.”

For both business leaders and employees, does any of the above look familiar to you? If it does, it’s time to address the reasons for this is happening.

What should I do to improve employee engagement?

Whatever way you define it, quiet quitting should be something that business leaders are aware of, and in some cases, making plans to address. My colleagues in Hays Australia recently wrote about quiet quitting and how both employers and employees can address this issue. They wrote: “The path to creating employee engagement is through supportive leadership that enables work that is meaningful to that individual and creating quality connections throughout the team and the wider business.

“It’s becoming clear that we all value being part of a team that’s doing something important. If you’re a leader of people, you play an important role in creating an inclusive workplace with a supportive work culture that allows team members to feel like they can contribute fully to a collective and higher purpose.”

Of course, salary is an important factor for any person and could be the reason for a staff member deciding to take a step back. However, this is not always the case.

Is your Employee Value Proposition up to standard? It’s important to identify what motivates your workforce, and what brought them to work at your organisation in the first place. Promoting your company’s culture, values or sustainability goals could be a way to re-engage the disengaged.

Has anything changed? Or, just as importantly, has it not changed? If these values aren’t reflective of the modern working world, perhaps it’s time to address them.

Are you still promoting flexible working, or have you encouraged your employees back into the office? Taking away a hybrid work model could lead to employee disengagement. I’ve spoken previously about the importance of getting your organisation ready for hybrid hiring and working. Have you supported your managers and workforce in making this a reality? If not, this could be the cause of quiet quitting.

With World Mental Health Day in October, now is an important time to consider employee wellness. A lot has been written about burnout since the pandemic forced many of us into working from home and into lockdowns. Quiet quitting is partly a result of this and the rejection of the hustle culture. Whilst we want our employees to be engaged and productive, ignoring their well-being is never an option. Are you doing everything you can to discourage burnout?

With economies around the world struggling, it is important that leaders motivate their workforce and make them feel listened to and engaged with the work they’re doing. On top of this, leaders must recognise that quiet quitting isn’t all about motivation. Have you taken a step back and asked yourself if the demands on your employees are fair? Ensure there is open dialogue where workers can express concerns over burnout and workload.

Quiet quitting – is it time for change?

The defining factor in this is that you cannot expect to motivate your entire workforce with a “one size fits all” approach. Not all of your people will have taken to quiet quitting, and those that do will not have the same reasons. Due to all the changes in the world, people are evolving, and so must workplaces.

Similarly, although the term “quiet quitting” is a new one, the concept has existed for some time. You cannot expect to retain all of your workforce forever. All of us have sought new challenges at various points in our careers. While it’s important to meet your employees’ needs, we shouldn’t beat ourselves up if we can’t drive all of them to be motivated 100 per cent of the time.

Instead, we should consider what we can do to keep them happy, while accepting the inevitability that some will move to pastures new. Remember, you’ll always need to bring in new talent and when you do, it’s important to welcome them into an inspiring working culture; one that compliments and nurtures their lives outside of work.

Whatever conclusion you come to, reflecting on the reasons for quiet quitting is a task worth doing. I believe it is important that people have healthy boundaries that allow for success in the workplace, as well as outside it.

I would love to hear from other business leaders on how they have approached quiet quitting. Do you know if it’s happening in your organisations and if so, what steps are you taking to address this, ahead of challenging economic times? Join the conversation on LinkedIn here.

About this author

Alistair has been the CEO of Hays, plc since Sept. 2007. An aeronautical engineer by training (University of Salford, UK, 1982), Alistair commenced his career at British Aerospace in the military aircraft division. From 1983-1988, he worked Schlumberger filling a number of field and research roles in the Oil & Gas Industry in both Europe and North America.

In 2002, he returned to the UK as CEO of Xansa, a UK based IT services and back-office processing organisation. During his 5 year tenure at Xansa, he re-focused the organisation to create a UK leading provider of back-office services across both the Public and Private sector and built one of the strongest offshore operations in the sector with over 6,000 people based in India.

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