Quiet quitting and the death of ambition

Company structures, expectations and norms do not align with current employee expectations. Most likely they never did. The key difference now is that employees are in a position to do something about it. 

A new term ‘quiet quitting’ describes employees doing the bare minimum of their job requirements. It is framed as people checking out of their jobs and ‘quitting’ the idea of going above and beyond. It tells us something that this term originated with employees not workplace consultants. It could have been called ‘bringing back balance’ but in the structure of a modern workplace the act of just doing your job requirements feels more akin to quitting than anything else. It is a subtle rebellion against the expected norms as employees slowly recoup energy and time.

Elle Hunt in The Guardian wrote an article last month asking Is this the end of ambition?. She described a similar trend with employees seeking more balance in their life, choosing to value time and watching the sunset over a bigger pay-check. Her framing, and many of the people interviewed, implied that ambition was solely reserved for a capitalistic notion of success, that to seek anything else was at the cost of ambition.

Both of these trends highlight the widening gap between the ideology that most corporations were founded upon (success = more wealth and power), and the ideology that many workers are embracing (success = more time and deeper relationships). Managers and companies I speak to are naturally worried about the impact this will have on their workforce.

The culture shift

Many companies have built their business on what is essentially unpaid labour, an expectation of employees “going above and beyond” or what economists would call ‘discretionary effort’.

Traditionally, this could be passively enforced through fear of firing and losing your job. More recently, the exchange for this labour was a mix of interpersonal benefits from within the company such as camaraderie, connection, purpose as well as some external social clout related to the #hustle mentality born out of Silicon Valley. (I’m not claiming these were fair exchanges for the time and energy, just that there seemed to at least be an exchange happening).

In the last few years the cultural context has shifted dramatically.

Hustle culture is no longer cool, in fact it has flipped and is often derided.

Remote work has removed many of the cultural benefits; we aren’t “in it together” in the same way we used to be and working late on your own in your kitchen isn’t the same as working late in an office surrounded by coworkers. (On that note, a Gallup study found that just 17% of hybrid workers reported having a best friend at work, the lowest level that it’s ever been.)

And crucially, in this talent market, if people are unhappy and unfulfilled they can now leave and get a job elsewhere – with the more privileged among them quitting without anywhere to go.

To infinity and beyond

Inherent in the definition of “above and beyond” is an imbalance. Companies that currently rely on people going above and beyond to succeed will have to drastically rethink the value exchange and how they operate. I’m seeing this play out in a number of ways:

💸 Monetise

A reasonable wage is one that allows people to pay the bills and have a good standard of living (especially given the increasing cost of living crisis). Higher salaries remunerating people for the additional time and expectations are being demanded.

During these discussions, it’s important to be aware of both the gender pay gap and the ethnicity pay gap. Women and minority demographics are paid less for the same amount of effort than white male counterparts and have to put in more effort to be viewed as equal.

But whilst fair pay is essential for retention, trying to encourage discretionary effort through higher pay won’t work in the long-term. Pay is a hygiene factor, not a motivating factor. The absence of hygiene factors will cause employees to work less hard, but the presence of more money won’t result in more effort. If employees are dissatisfied and the underlying issues aren’t addressed, higher salaries will only keep them for a little while longer. 

💞 Incentivise

People still want to feel fulfilled and to feel a sense of purpose in their work. And when employees are engaged, they often want to give discretionary effort to improve their work experience whether that’s by volunteering on committees or simply sharing their vibes over Slack.

However since the pandemic we’ve seen a shift in values which has impacted this: employees have traded meaning and connection for greater autonomy and freedom.

Malcolm Gladwell received significant blowback for criticising remote work by saying that people who “sit in their pyjamas cannot have a feeling of belonging”. Whilst it was a ridiculous generalisation from a generally excellent thinker, there’s still something we can take from it. It is true that it is harder to nurture certain values in certain contexts and we need to be conscious about aligning company values with employee values.

There’s not a one-size fits all approach to this. It will depend on your company mission and therefore what culture strategy is needed to support this. One thing is for certain though, you can’t be all things to all people.

🔀 Reorganise

Fundamentally, many companies are simply not set up in the right way to adapt to this cultural shift. Even if people are paid well and feel a sense of fulfilment, they still understandably want a healthy work/life balance.

Job roles will need to change with role shares being considered, client pricing models will need to reflect the reduction in discretionary effort, retention will need reimagining.

The classic question consultants ask is: how would you have designed your company if you started today? It’s a difficult question to answer, even more difficult to act upon. It won’t be easy to shift, but it will be necessary.