Quiet quitting -- the phenomenon of workers doing no more than what they must to keep their jobs -- is the hottest business buzzword these days. Why do workers quiet-quit? What should business leaders do about it?

The short answers: Workers quiet-quit for many reasons -- most notably because they are working to live, rather than living to work.

To deal with quiet quitting, business leaders should not spy on their workers. Instead, they should either hire only workers who are deeply engaged with the company's mission or, perhaps more realistically, make it clear to quiet quitters in their employ what they must do to keep their jobs.

This comes to mind in considering the growing popularity of worker surveillance tools among business leaders. As the Wall Street Journal reported, about 33 percent of large and medium-size companies use such systems -- many of which "include constant monitoring of nearly everything workers do on their devices." 

Business leaders can choose to view these details for each individual worker or use software -- such as ActivTrak -- that includes privacy controls, anonymized, and aggregated data, and, unlike competing products, does not "support keystroke logging, camera access, video recording or email reading or counting," noted the Journal.

Why Leaders Should Not Spy on Workers

The pandemic drove workers from the office to the home and that made business leaders fear that people at home would not do their jobs. In my view, such business leaders subscribe to Theory X -- the idea that people are reluctant components of a business machine.

A company's decision to spy on what workers do on their devices raises many questions:

  • Are business leaders notifying workers specifically why and how they are using such tools?
  • If so, does this notification drive workers to quit the company? 
  • Will workers who stay after such notification choose to game the worker surveillance systems?
  • What will business leaders do with the worker surveillance data?
  • Do such systems increase worker productivity and boost customer retention and satisfaction?
  • Do such systems encourage quiet quitting because they reinforce workers' view that the company will take as much as they can and give little in return?

No research proves that the benefits of worker surveillance systems exceed their costs. Antonio Aloisi and Valerio De Stefano, professors who recently reviewed academic literature for their book Your Boss Is an Algorithm, told the Journal, "There is definitely no study pointing out that [worker surveillance systems increase] productivity in any meaningful way."

Meanwhile, studies indicate that spying on workers creates problems -- boosting worker stress, eroding their trust in management, and encouraging them to game the system.

For example, a 2020 survey of 2,100 call center workers found that "recording keystrokes and tracking online activity ... was associated with increased stress, lower job satisfaction, higher absenteeism, and more desire to quit," noted the Journal.

Another 2020 study found that introducing new worker monitoring systems led 56 percent of 2,000 U.K. trade union members surveyed to report that they felt that such systems eroded trust between workers and management. Moreover, De Stefano told the Journal that "introducing these systems can encourage users to game the systems, rather than doing their actual jobs."

In short, spying on workers does not strike me as a good management practice.

What Leaders Should Do About Quiet Quitting

When it comes to quiet quitting, leaders should first answer questions such as:

  • What is quiet quitting and what causes it?
  • Do quiet quitters make a company more or less competitive?

As I wrote in August -- quiet quitters are not a new phenomenon. Instead they are people who feel empowered by the low unemployment rate to let others know that they intend to get their job done to the satisfaction of their managers while preserving space for their personal lives.

Business leaders should create an environment that enables the company to get the most from such workers -- and at the same time, develop a separate group of workers who are eager to take on greater leadership responsibilities.

Rather than spying on them, business leaders can follow four steps:

  • Ask workers about their professional and personal life goals
  • Share with them your corporate goals -- such as revenue growth and customer satisfaction -- that are most relevant to their role in the company
  • Gain agreement with workers on indicators linked to those goals -- such as the number of new customers they add or revenue from new products they help to launch
  • Reward workers who meet the goals, and counsel or manage out those who don't

Business leaders who spy on their employees must shift their perspectives. They should respect workers' desire to carve out space for their personal lives while they help to achieve the company's goals.