The quiet resignation
Firms don’t trust their workers. Workers don’t feel valued. Can reevaluating our work relationships help?
Millennials had Stanley of NBC’s The Office, who, when he made the effort to look up from his crossword puzzle, could barely be bothered to perform the most basic of tasks. Gen-X had George Costanza, who constructed an elaborate nap zone under his desk for secret snoozing on the clock. Somewhere in between was Office Space’s lazy protagonist, who confounds management consultants by proudly declaring that, “in a given week I probably only do about fifteen minutes of real, actual, work.” The phenomenon goes back as far as offices. In 1856, Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener served as the template for the office-bound idler, simply refusing to do any work at all with a blunt, “I prefer not to.”
Today, we have TikTok comedian Scott Seiss.
It’s an over-the-top depiction of how workers and bosses think, but it cuts to the core of the issue, that managers often expect workers to give their job “110%,” and workers feel like they owe their bosses no more and no less than the stated duties of their job.
Hot on the heels of “The Great Resignation,” the phenomenon of “quiet quitting” took TikTok by storm in October, and Gen Z proudly took ownership of the movement. The term initially referred to an employee who seeks to take ownership of their work life, performing their designated tasks, but not over-performing. No unpaid overtime, no going “above and beyond” for the benefit of the company. You might simply call this “work-life balance.”
Over time, commentators began to use the term to refer to a more explicitly nefarious phenomenon — an employee who’s emotionally checked out and unmotivated, doing the bare minimum to not get fired. Instead of quitting, they continue to collect a full paycheck while enjoying the freedom to loaf. Per the Washington Post:
The phrase is generating millions of views on TikTok as some young professionals reject the idea of going above and beyond in their careers, labeling their lesser enthusiasm a form of “quitting.” It isn’t about getting off the company payroll, these employees say. In fact, the idea is to stay on it—but focus your time on the things you do outside of the office.
On the other side of quiet quitting, we have quiet firing, a practice by which managers ice out a worker, hoping they’ll eventually quit. When quiet firing happens, it’s usually because a manager has lost faith in the worker’s ability to do their job well, but they don’t want to do the emotional labor of firing — or even worse, they hope to rob the worker of benefits associated with the termination of their job, like severance payments. Instead of providing good feedback or coaching the worker, bosses neglect them, perhaps passing them over for promotions, hoping that the worker will become so frustrated that they “self-select” out of the job. Even in a best-case scenario where the worker leaves, a disgruntled ex-worker can damage the company’s reputation for future hires. Quietly fired employees probably won’t leave on good terms.
Under such toxic workplace conditions, it’s no surprise that a Gallup poll finds that only 21% of employees are engaged at work. The remaining 79% could theoretically be phoning it in. Regardless of the intent of the original TikTok video’s creator, it’s clear that many firms and workers are facing the challenge that neither party seems to really trust the other.
Breathless business media coverage of the TikTok trend would have you believe that the Great Resignation is over, and the Great Half-Assing is now upon us. To be fair, managers are right to have concerns about quiet quitting, at least so far as it refers to employees phoning it in. But even then, it’s a mistake to perceive the phenomenon as some sort of generational moral failing. Workers of all ages lose their motivation to work when they feel like the management isn’t living up to their end of the bargain. Quiet quitting isn’t the problem — it’s a symptom of a bigger issue: lack of motivation.
In order to better understand the problem of quiet quitting and its potential remedies, we spoke with some managers. And since quiet quitting has been discussed thoroughly over the last quarter, we wanted to give this exploration our unique spin: Gather is a network of independent knowledge workers, so we wanted to capture that unique perspective. Can our unique approach to working relationships help?
In the original TikTok video discussing the subject, quiet quitting is defined like this:
…you’re not outright quitting your job, but you’re quitting the idea of going above and beyond. You’re still performing your duties, but you’re no longer subscribing to the hustle culture mentality that work has to be your life. The reality is it’s not — and your worth as a person is not defined by your labor.
A chorus of frustrated workers chimed in with TikTok responses. The message seemed to resonate most with young workers who are far too young to remember the “slacker” mentality associated with Gen X. The incoming generation of workers have only known the so-called “hustle culture” popularized by millennials, which has young workers boasting about their long work days on social media (#RiseAndGrind) in a kind of showy workaholism. The patron saint of this type of hustling might be Gary Vaynerchuk, an entrepreneurship guru who targets young ambitious hustlers, teaching them how to not only survive the rat race, but to somehow win it.
In the years since, hustle culture has been roundly criticized for how it encourages workers to forego basic human needs, often only for the benefit of corporate overlords. Hustle culture germinated in the offices of Web 2.0 startups, where would-be Zuckerbergs encouraged their teams to work their youth away in the hopes of striking it big with a billion-dollar acquisition. Tales of successful founders working late hours and sleeping at the office inspired young workers, and early stage startups dangled the carrot of a seemingly inevitable startup lottery payoff that would make everybody rich. You want to work for the next Facebook, right? Or don’t you have what it takes to help us get there?
Over the last twenty years, large corporations absorbed this culture, even when workers didn’t stand to benefit from an eventual windfall. The grind became the new normal as firms sought to capture the “startup energy” that seemed to be driving much of the innovation of the era. Big Tech firms began to offer on-site amenities like free meals, gym access, and laundry service, with the unstated goal of keeping workers closer to the desks throughout the day (and night). But who’s really benefiting from this arrangement? In 2019, The New York Times’ Erin Griffith wrote, “Today’s messages glorify personal profit, even if bosses and investors — not workers — are the ones capturing most of the gains. Wage growth has been essentially stagnant for years.”
Making matters worse for workers, over the last half century, many large institutions have more or less abandoned their obligation to invest heavily in their employees throughout their entire careers. Today, few expect robust incentives for sticking with a company for the long haul. We discussed this trend at length in our Dispatch about upskilling.
When the quiet quitting TikTok went viral, EZPR CEO Ed Zitron didn’t mince words when calling it out as a legitimate response to hustle culture’s excesses:
Quiet quitting [is] a non-existent concept that is mostly just a way that entitled bosses and managers are using to complain that they’re not getting free work. Quiet Quitting does not exist as a worker problem – it literally means coming to your job and doing your tasks, it is nothing about workers being insufficient or conning anyone. It is ENTIRELY about not going above and beyond the call of duty for no reason. If you are pushing this concept as a worker problem, YOU are the problem.
Gather’s Australian expat Michael Terwindt agrees:
Australian work culture is much more laid back. People are way less likely to send emails after hours, for example. And email sent on the weekend can be considered a faux pas in certain circles. Since re-adjusting from the “always available” mentality that seems to be the norm in the U.S. (especially in the startup and freelance worlds), I’m now an advocate of boundaries for success. I’m wary of hustle culture and “the grind” being indoctrinated as the norm when they’re probably unhealthy in the long run. I’m now seeing quiet quitting as a natural response to deep systemic burnout.
So quiet quitting — the healthy kind that refers to work-life balance — can be seen as a reaction against the hustle culture which has dominated over the last couple of decades. But sometimes workers and managers really do lose their ability to trust one another, and quiet quitting and firing — the toxic, bad-faith kind — becomes a problem. How can workers and managers stay aligned and avoid this outcome?
As much as managers would like workers to be intrinsically motivated to contribute their best to the company, sometimes work simply sucks. When that happens, as it inevitably will in just about every job, workers will tend to want to pull back their effort. Managers fear this, and often resort to elaborate systems of surveillance (e.g. software that can detect if a remote worker is clicking their mouse frequently, or something as lo-fi as peering over their shoulders to make sure they’re not browsing social media on the clock). This creates a toxic environment for workers, who feel distrusted and underappreciated. It may even push them to slacking off, even if they weren’t already.
It’s notable that quiet quitting became a cultural touchstone around the time that remote laptop work became a mainstream mode of labor, and this kind of over-the-shoulder monitoring became less tenable. The remote work revolution has the capacity to exacerbate tension between workers and bosses. Remote work can make it easier for workers to goof off with impunity (quiet quitting) or to avoid properly managing an unmotivated worker (quiet firing). And even if there’s no ill intent on either side, it’s easier than ever for bosses and workers to not be “on the same page.”
We independent knowledge workers have been doing the remote work thing for decades, and we’ve learned over the years about how to mitigate the disconnect that can drive resentment between managers and their workers.
We feel that there’s less opportunity for tension or resentment to build with independent knowledge work, because our clients don’t “own” us (or think they do) in the same way they do employees. And on the worker side, there’s much less pressure to chase promotions and bonuses by overworking ourselves, because those rewards were never on the table. It’s understood that we’ll be doing the work as stated in the contract.
One piece of advice that comes up in our research frequently is the importance of properly setting and aligning on expectations. Fortunately, the structure of independent knowledge work facilitates this.
Gather puts a lot of thought into our approach to SOWs and other agreements, such that we very rarely find that Gather members are unhappy with their projects, or that Gather clients are unhappy with the work performed. Everyone’s on the same page, with aligned incentives and expectations. This arrangement also has the side benefit of helping workers and managers to feel more like peers, equal members of a team, because the terms upon which the relationship was founded dictate how the work gets done, and they’re frequently up for review on both sides.
Because all of the work we do is structured on a contract basis (usually renewable by quarter), both workers and clients have frequent opportunities to adjust the terms of a working relationship, or even end it. In this way, everyone’s happy, nobody feels like they’re being screwed over.
“It’s hard for a contractor to ‘pull a Costanza’ for any extended period of time,” says Gather’s Managing Director Christophe Jammet. “You’re looking at a defined renewal cadence, and it’s very easy to reconcile the work done against what was scoped, so if someone’s Costanza-ing under their desk, it’s going to be pretty obvious pretty quickly.”
Whether we’re talking about quiet quitting or quiet firing, both problems come down to a lack of proper communication. Under a full-time work paradigm, lack of communication can amplify paranoia (“Are my workers taking advantage of me?” “Does my boss think I’m doing a bad job?”). One of the ways that Gather’s approach addresses this is forcing hard touch points. At every quarter — at minimum — clients and workers are given the opportunity to evaluate the terms of the work relationship. This functions not only as a two-way performance review, but a chance to evaluate workflows, and decide if a particular workstream needs more hours, more bodies, or a new approach. It turns work into an iterative process that is optimized over time for both parties’ needs, rather than something that can spiral out of control, with both parties feeling resentment and frustration at their lack of visibility.
On the management side, it’s important for people who are intimate with the work to participate in the development of SOWs. They can answer the important questions that will inform how the work is scoped. Can the work be done asynchronously? Will it require a lot of meetings? Can it be realistically performed in a certain time zone? How much time will it take? Can appropriate feedback cycles be baked into workflows in order to facilitate the contractor’s ongoing work and avoid bottlenecks? These are all questions that an HR person might not be able to answer without consulting directly with the folks who are in the trenches.
Of course, all the ink in the world can’t print a contract that’s air-tight enough to ensure real trust. If a boss or a worker wants to screw you, they can often find a way to do it even when decent contracts are in place. Nobody wants to go to court over a few paychecks, so how do you safeguard yourself as a worker or as a boss? If at all possible, you’ve got to try to work with people you know and trust.
We spoke with Christopher Kienle, who currently serves as a VP at a national insurance firm. Christopher is a repeat Gather client, who has hired and embedded Gather teams within 4 organizations over the last 6 years. He keeps coming back for more because he’s developed an unparalleled level of trust with Gather as a brand. Trust is so important to Kienle that he puts comparatively less stock in contracts.
“Gather is the only company I’ve trusted over the years to put together contracts with lesser-defined scopes of work without me worrying that I’m going to get screwed in the end,” he says.
But Kienle has found that even tightly-scoped contracts can be abused by workers. If a contractor or vendor wants to overcharge you, they will find an “above board” way to do it, with change orders and overages, or by overbilling hours.
“I’ve been burned by agencies and contractors where we spent a lot of money and I feel like I don’t have a lot to show for it,” he says.
That’s not to argue that change orders and overages aren’t sometimes justifiable compensation for out-of-scope work, but that both managers and workers ideally should aim to work with people who will “do the right thing” throughout the relationship.
“I used to be a consultant and I’m empathetic toward contractors,” says Kienle. “I don’t want to abuse agencies or individuals. At the end of the day, I want to feel good that I got value, and I want you to feel like we treated you right.”
You can’t always pick your boss or your workers, but at least with independent knowledge work, you can more easily stick with good clients and managers as they move from firm to firm. Kienle’s history with Gather is a testament to the value of this approach.
Hiring people from a brand that he’s come to trust eliminates a lot of stress, but like any manager, Kienle has been in situations where workers were not performing to his expectations. In this scenario, he tries to proactively resolve such issues early.
“I ask them what they’re working on, and challenge them to summarize what they’ve been doing.” In many cases, more communication can reveal a solution. “But if they can’t account for their time, at some point it becomes not just a circumstantial performance issue, but a character flaw.”
In the scenario where he’s had to deal with the type of quiet quitter who really is shamelessly phoning it in, he’s had to make tough decisions to end working relationships.
“I didn’t like doing it,” he says, “but not acting decisively would hurt my credibility as a leader.”
Kienle says that it can take a good six months or so to get to know a person well enough to trust them. But once you have established a baseline of trust, you want to keep that relationship going as long as you can. And that’s what keeps him hiring from the talent pool at Gather.
In independent knowledge work, you end up working with multiple clients and multiple teams at a time. It can be easy to let these folks come and go from your professional life, but it can be advantageous to keep track of the people who’ve treated you with respect. Mutual trust doesn’t come easy, and it takes a long time to build. But if you can build a roster of trusted colleagues over the years, you can chart out a career working with good people. And when you have that, you’ll never want to quit, quietly or otherwise.
Thanks for joining us for the Winter Dispatch. In the next issue, our pub date coincides with International Women’s Day. We’ll be discussing how independent knowledge work can empower women to achieve career success on their own terms.
And don’t forget, the Gather Dispatch podcast is on the air. It’s a discussion where people from across the extended Gather Network talk about the future of independent work from a variety of perspectives. This week, co-hosts Jason Oberholtzer and Mimi Sun Longo are discussing what marketing organizations can learn from media companies.