Recently a spate of articles in the Wall Street Journal, AXIOS, and many others have written about so-called “Quiet Quitting” and the rise of the disengaged workers, especially amongst the older Gen Z set and younger Millennials, both now in their mid to late 20s.
Part of the argument is that “not going the extra mile” and just doing the “bare minimum” work to keep your job is evidence that younger workers are disengaged in the workplace. Maybe. But so is the majority of the American workforce. See the chart below from Gallup this year.
I think the real question is, why are so many of us disengaged from work?
Quiet quitting is a misnomer and isn’t a measure of engagement.
Before we get into the topic of engagement, let’s put a few things out on the table:
1. Starting and ending our day based on the work hours stated by our employer doesn’t mean we don’t care about our job or even that we are unwilling to go the “extra- mile.”
This is just an example of setting boundaries. It’s possible those employees value a more balanced life, which in the end, probably makes them better, more energized, and creative employees. When you start and end your day doesn’t measure productivity. People aren’t robots. So “productivity” may not be the right measure. Employers need to implement better outcome measures and ways to evaluate an individual’s impact on the bottom line. Also, haven’t we left behind the days of counting and managing by the number of butts in a seat? Any hybrid worker will tell you they get more done in four hours at home than most people do by sitting eight hours in an office.
2. If someone only wants to do the work required in their job description, this doesn’t mean they are lazy.
Not everyone wants to put in the “extra -effort” to get ahead. Either they don’t believe it will matter much to their employer, they aren’t in the right job, they’re not in a stage of life where it’s possible due to external demands, or that’s just not who they are. Not everyone wants to shoot for the moon or is looking for a “career.” We are all wired differently and have different needs, levels of ambition, and thoughts on how we want to live our life. There is nothing wrong with that.
3. The Gen Z and Millennial generation didn’t start any of this. For years, older generations have been ranting about poor management, lack of training, workloads, stress, burnout, and job security.
Have you ever watched the 1999 movie Office Space? Many older employees haven’t felt a connection or compelling reason to work extra hard or be loyal to employers since they switched workers to 401ks from pensions in the early ’80s; made us ride the roller coaster of the mergers and acquisition wave of the late ’80s and started outsourcing and downsizing our jobs in the ’90s. It’s been quite a ride for the stressed-out, over-scheduled American worker trying to get ahead. Younger generations have more avenues through social media to communicate their frustrations about work life than we did, but this didn’t start with them. We’ve needed a new way of working for quite some time, and most of us never enjoyed the “hustle culture.” Did employers ever read study after study that workers cared most about flexibility and more balance in their lives?
4. Don’t underestimate how Covid-19 has accelerated the transformation of how we work AND want to work.
Despite the two years of lockdowns, no social life, and families stuck together working and schooling, a miraculous thing happened. Knowledge workers were forced to work from home. They finally got a taste of life off the gerbil wheel, and guess what? They loved it!
For the first time ever (for many), knowledge workers experienced life without the hurried mornings of getting out the door, only to experience the un-hurried, torturous commute to the office. They loved being able to focus on the work they needed to do without all the unnecessary distractions in the office.
Isn’t it remarkable that sitting in their bedroom, working off a one-screen laptop in an uncomfortable chair, was still preferable to the oh-so-glamorous cubicle? Finally, all that technology heaped upon them for years that only served to extend their workday into their home life had some usefulness. They could once and for all be untethered from the office. Hallelujah!
Sure, many missed their colleagues and wanted to socialize with them in the office, but that’s about the only reason they wanted to return to the office. Did I mention that most workers who experienced hybrid or fully remote working reported feeling more productive and engaged in their work, improved relationships with their families, and felt better both physically and emotionally?
And while engagement is still low for most workers, according to Gallup, the level of engagement for hybrid and fully remote workers is 37%, while for those workers who work exclusively in the office is 29%. Hmmm…Perhaps a more balanced life is a good thing after all.
Engagement is a two-way street.
Unfortunately for businesses, having disengaged employees can affect everything: including retention, productivity, profitability, and many other metrics of a successful organization.
But engagement in the workplace doesn’t just happen. It requires intentionality by management, specifically the manager. According to Gallup, “70% of the variance in team engagement is determined solely by the manager” -70%!
To foster engagement and help employees feel connected to an organization’s culture and mission, managers need to take a more human-centered approach with employees to show they care. They need to be transparent in their communications, encourage employee development, and provide recognition and acknowledgment of an individual’s contributions. Employees want coaches, not bosses. They want feedback on their work and to know their opinions matter. They want clarity in job performance expectations and the opportunity to learn more skills.
Managers need to understand the strengths of the individuals on their teams. Make sure they are the right fit for the job you are asking them to do, and most importantly – model the behavior you want from your employees. All of this goes a long way to help build trust between the employee, the manager, and the organization. If you don’t create trust, you will never have high engagement.
Which brings us back to the unengaged American worker.
I believe most people if given the opportunity to be engaged in something they spend a third of their life doing, would take it. I don’t really think most people enjoy watching the clock all day. I also believe most could count on one hand the number of great managers they had in their careers who helped them grow as a person and learn.
In the end, it’s up to an employee to decide if they want to engage in work or not. They must accept responsibility for how and if it affects their advancement in their company, their career, and any financial repercussions which result from their decisions. But it is leadership’s responsibility to step up and create more engaging, flexible work cultures to meet the real needs of the humans who make up their workforce.