A behavioral scientist shares the data to prove it and offers best practices to minimize quiet quitting and lower productivity concerns amid a hybrid return to office.
Quiet quitting—a term that has become all too familiar for business owners—refers to doing the bare minimal tasks of your job description well enough that you don’t get fired. Introduced in March 2002, it only started to gain traction as an issue of concern among business leaders when US government data on productivity, released in August 2022, showed a sharp, unexpected drop in Q1 and Q2 of 2022.
Is remote work responsible for Quiet Quitting?
Many traditionalist leaders rushed to attribute this drop in productivity and rise in quiet quitting to remote work. For example, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink attributed the drop in productivity to remote work. He called for requiring employees to come to the office to address this problem.
Yet the claims of traditionalists don’t add up. If quiet quitting and the resultant drop in productivity stemmed from remote work, we would see a drop in productivity right from the start of the pandemic, when office workers switched to remote work. Then, when offices opened back up, especially after the Omicron wave at the end of 2021, we would see productivity going up as workers went back to the office from early 2022 onward.
In reality, data shows the opposite trend. US productivity jumped in Q2 2020 as offices closed, and stayed at a heightened level through Q4 2021. Then, when companies started mandating a return to office from early 2022, productivity dropped sharply, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
So what explains the drop in productivity associated with quiet quitting? According to Ben Wigert, director of research and strategy for workplace management at Gallup, forcing employees to come to the office under the threat of discipline could lead to disengagement, fear, and distrust. Gallup finds that “the optimal engagement boost occurs when employees spend 60% to 80% of their time—or three to four days in a five-day workweek—working off-site.” No wonder, then, that mandates forcing employees to come to the office full-time could result in quiet quitting.
How to solve Quiet Quitting in the mandated return to office
When I show this data to my consulting clients, they often ask what they can do to address this problem. First, I remind them of a joke from the famous comedian Henny Youngman: “The patient says, ‘Doctor, it hurts when I do this.’ The doctor says, ‘Then don’t do that!’’’ Then, I share that the best approach for the future of work is a flexible team-led approach, where team leads determine the work arrangements that best serve the needs of their team. Team leads know what their teams need, including how to maximize productivity, engagement and collaboration.
However, it’s not always easy. They might face an inflexible Board of Directors, or the C-suite might be united in demanding that employees return to the office for much or all of the workweek. What then?
In that case, I help them identify best practices for returning to the office that minimize quiet quitting concerns. You might imagine that it’s as simple as increasing their pay. And indeed, a conversation about compensation should always accompany a return-to-office initiative.
What I find works best is to pay for fees associated with specific office-related costs, rather than a general salary increase. In other words, pay the commuting costs of your staff: IRS per diem for miles traveled, public transportation fees, etc. Pay for a nice catered lunch. Pay for their dry-cleaning costs.
Such payments help address the initial discontent and reduce the attrition typically associated with the mandated office return. But they don’t address the quiet quitting that results from people coming to the office and doing the same thing they would do at home, except with a two-hour commute.
That’s the scenario that leads directly to quiet quitting. We know that people are much more productive on individual tasks that require focus at home. A Slack survey confirmed this impression: 55% of respondents preferred to do “deep work” at home, while only 16% cited the office as a better place for deep work.
Make the office a collaboration destination
Instead, make the office a place for socializing, collaboration, and in-depth training, especially for newer employees. To address socializing needs, it’s valuable to organize fun, team-building exercises and social events as staff come back to the office to build relationships.
To facilitate collaboration, it’s critical to consider how in-office staff works together with those working from home. A number of my clients have staff who come in on different days of the week, requiring hybrid collaboration and meetings. To facilitate such collaboration between in-office and remote staff, it’s imperative to improve AV to facilitate hybrid meetings that empower effective collaboration.
There’s no replacement for face-to-face experiences for in-depth training around soft skills, such as effective in-person communication, conflict mediation and resolution, and ethical persuasion. My clients find that if they offer valuable training regularly once their employees return to the office, there’s a reduction in quiet quitting and a boost in employee engagement and productivity.
While a mandated return to office will inevitably lead to some quiet quitting and loss in productivity, smart leaders can ameliorate this problem. Focus on helping employees socialize, collaborate, and get great professional development and mentoring—thus showing them the value of the office—will reduce quiet quitting and boost performance.
Contributed to EO by Dr. Gleb Tsipursky, CEO of the boutique future-of-work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts, who helps leaders use hybrid work to improve retention and productivity while cutting costs. He wrote the first book on leading hybrid teams after the pandemic, his best-seller Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams, as well as seven other books. His cutting-edge thought leadership comes from over 20 years of consulting for Fortune 500 companies from Aflac to Xerox and over 15 years in academia as a behavioral scientist at UNC-Chapel Hill and Ohio State. A proud Ukrainian American, Dr. Gleb lives in Columbus, Ohio.