Advertisement
Op-ed

Remote work not to blame for ‘quiet quitting’ | GUEST COMMENTARY

In 2021, Maryland was among the top four states in the country for remote work, with 24% of the popuIation working from home. But 2022 brought a renewed push to return to the office here and elsewhere. To ease the burden, employers should consider covering their workers' commuting costs.

The term “quiet quitting” — to perform at the bare minimum level on the job — only started to gain traction as an issue of concern among business leaders when government data on productivity released in August 2022 showed a sharp and unexpected drop in the first and second quarters of that year. Many traditionalist leaders, such as BlackRock CEO Larry Fink, attributed this supposed rise in quiet quitting to remote work and called for employees to return to the office to address the problem.

Yet recently released data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics proves that the claims of traditionalists don’t add up. If quiet quitting and a drop in productivity stemmed from remote work, we should see a drop in productivity right from the start of the pandemic, when office workers first switched to remote work. Then, when offices opened back up, especially after the Omicron wave in the end of 2021, we should see productivity going up as workers went back to the office from early 2022 onward.

Advertisement

In reality, we see the opposite, however. U.S. productivity jumped in the second quarter of 2020 as offices closed, and it stayed at a heightened level through the fourth quarter of 2021. Then, when companies started mandating a return to office from early 2022 on, productivity dropped sharply.

We find similar evidence from a July 2022 study from the highly respected National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). It found that annual productivity growth in businesses already widely relying on remote work, such as tech and finance, jumped from 1.1% between the years 2010 and 2019 to 3.3% during the pandemic, from 2020 to ‘22. Industries relying on in-person contact, such as transportation, dining and hospitality, meanwhile, went from a productivity growth of 0.6% between 2010 and 2019 to a decrease of 2.6% since the start of the pandemic.

Advertisement

So, what explains the drop in productivity associated with quiet quitting? Gallup found that if people are required to come to the office for more time than they prefer, “employees experience significantly lower engagement, significantly lower well-being, significantly higher intent to leave [and] significantly higher levels of burnout.” 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.” And research by Stanford University even before the pandemic found that workers who spent four days a week working remotely were 9% more engaged than in-office staff.

When I show this data to my consulting clients, they often ask me what they can do to address this problem. First of all, 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!’’' The best approach for the future of work is a flexible, team-led approach. Team leaders know best what their teams need, including how to maximize productivity, engagement and collaboration through work arrangements.

However, often it’s not so easy. They might be facing an intransigent boards of directors, or the rest of the C-suite might be united in demanding employees return to the office for much or all of the workweek. What then?

In that case, I help them figure out best practices for returning to the office that minimize quiet quitting concerns. You might imagine that it’s as simple as paying people more. And indeed, a conversation about compensation should always accompany a return to office initiative. For instance, research by Owl Labs suggests that it costs an average of $863 per month for the average office worker to commute to work versus staying at home, which is about $432 per month for utilities, office supplies and so on. A September 2022 survey by Goodhire found that 73% of workers believe companies should pay in-office workers more than remote workers.

What I find works best is to pay for fees associated with specific office-related costs, rather than a general salary increase, thus, pay the commuting costs of your staff: IRS per diem for miles traveled, public transport fees and so on. 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.

For example, an October 2022 survey by Slack found that many knowledge workers who are required to go back to the office are spending up to four hours on video calls. Slack’s head in the UK Stuart Templeton said that employers risked turning their offices into “productivity killers,” since “making a two-hour commute to sit on video calls is a terrible use of the office.”

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 13, 2022: People enter a train at a Brooklyn subway station  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Instead, the office should be a place for socializing, collaboration and in-depth training, especially for newer employees. To address socializing needs, it’s valuable to organize fun, novel, and out-of-the-box team-building exercises as staff come back to the office. Especially helpful are collaboration-encouraging activities, like team escape room events. Besides such one-off activities, which should be done once a month, it’s important to organize regular social events, such as weekly happy hours.

To facilitate collaboration, it’s important to consider how in-office staff work 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 of in-office and remote staff, it helps to provide virtual office environments, which put both kinds of workers on an equal playing field. Likewise, it’s imperative to improve AV to facilitate hybrid meetings to enable effective collaboration.

Advertisement

Plenty of employees like online learning, which is great for gaining new information and technical skills. But 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.

Finally, we find it’s valuable to help staff address burnout as part of the return to office, such as by providing mental health benefits. Burnout contributes to quiet quitting, and we see a clear increase in burnout during the drive to return employees to the office. In a late 2022 Gallup survey, 71% of respondents said that compared to in-office work, hybrid work improves work-life balance and 58% reported less burnout.

While a mandated return to office will inevitably lead to some quiet quitting and loss in productivity, smart leaders can ameliorate this problem using best practices. Focusing on helping employees socialize, collaborate, and get great professional development and mentoring, and thus showing them the value of the office, will reduce quiet quitting and boost performance.

Gleb Tsipursky (gleb@disasteravoidanceexperts.com) is the CEO of the future-proofing consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts, and is the author of “Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage.”


Advertisement