Walk the streets of any American city center today, and you would readily agree that things just do not feel right. Office occupancy in New York City, for instance, is only around 50%, far below its near 100% pre-pandemic peaks. Businesses supporting the office-going population, such as restaurants, delis, cleaners, and newsagents, are struggling, if not yet shuttered completely. The number of Americans working just recently surpassed the number of working Americans in February 2020, and that’s with a larger working-age population.
Amidst this feeling of absence in downtown America, a new phrase has entered the American lexicon: quiet quitting.
The sudden prominence of this phrase, which describes doing the absolute minimum of what is required at work and nothing more, seems to confirm the worst suspicions of a newly disengaged workforce, absent from downtown America, twiddling their thumbs while ‘working’ at home. Even attendees at the World Economic Forum in Davos are talking worriedly about quiet quitting.
Given these trends, it would be easy to accuse working from home, which has persisted past the pandemic, of fueling a sort of malaise. Indeed, polling by our team at Redfield & Wilton Strategies finds that American workers, by a more than 2-to-1 ratio, admit it is easier to get away with not working on the job when working remotely rather than at the workplace.
Without the immediate, regular supervision that is experienced at the office, anyone can engage in non-work activity, all while checking in here and there with their colleagues in order to give the appearance of being constantly online, engaged in work.
Yet, placing the blame on remote work for a less productive America misses the mark. Remember, when much of the working world abruptly shifted to remote work in the spring of 2020, the top concern for managers was, in fact, not underwork, but burnout.
Overall, the vast majority of American workers (83%) say they are working as much, if not more, than they were in 2019. Critically, those who now work remotely full-time are twice as likely as those who work in person full-time to report working more than they were in 2019.
To this point, most working Americans will also say that working from home allows one to focus on their work and not be distracted, to avoid meetings that waste their time, to reduce stress, and to eat healthily—all activities that allow for a more productive working life. As they skip lengthy commutes to work, miss out on the
office chatter, and pass on the long lunches and after work drinks, many remote workers may in fact be better engaged than their office-going counterparts. To turn the phrase around, they are being quietly productive.
The quiet worker, the one who silently gets their work done, has been, for obvious reasons, absent from the public debate regarding the quiet quitter. Unlike the frantic worker bees showing their face at every moment or even the quiet quitters confessing their laziness to Tiktok, the quiet worker does not show off. The quiet worker does not demand constant recognition from others. But remove the quiet worker from the equation, and things will suddenly grind to a halt.
Let us not confuse the appearance of productivity with genuine productivity. It may be easier to appear to be working hard at the office, but that does not mean one is actually working harder. Someone who takes breaks when necessary, who has an active life outside of work, and who gets on better with those that they live with may
be a smarter, healthier, and more productive worker than the one who indulges in the daily hustle.
Bemoan the minority of quiet quitters at the risk of upsetting the silent majority of quiet workers.
Yes, the dislocation of workers from downtown America to their remote exiles has caused problems, to say the least. Most concerningly, 42% of all Americans say they are less social now than they were in 2019. The solution to these problems, however, is not to wish for an elusive return to how things used to be.
Life in working America has changed irrevocably, and we therefore have no choice but to adapt.
Philip van Scheltinga is Director of Research at Redfield & Wilton Strategies.