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OK, fine, let’s talk about ‘quiet quitting’

Amid ever-shifting work norms, here’s what the term of the moment means — and what it doesn’t.

Politely, absolutely, no. (Photo by SHVETS production via Pexels)

Written by Technically Media CEO Chris Wink,’s Culture Builder newsletter features tips on growing powerful teams and dynamic workplaces. Below is the latest edition we published. Sign up to get the next one.

Malcolm Gladwell stepped into a wedge issue of work — and got walloped from all sides.

The Canadian-bred journalist and best-selling author said in a podcast interview that returning to the office is about a “sense of belonging” that is lost when employees aren’t together physically. Critics were quick to point out that Gladwell himself has long identified as a remote worker himself. Never mind the nuance to Gladwell’s point on the tradeoffs of independent work, the online discourse quickly turned rancorous.

Since this pandemic has uprooted so much, other shifting work norms are at least as polarizing. Coinciding with Gladwell’s comments, another lightning rod has emerged: “quiet quitting.”

What is quiet quitting?

In short, quiet quitting is used to describe how an overachiever might readjust their own expectations for themselves at work. Don’t leave a job if you still value it, goes the thinking. Instead, drop the undue stress and informally renegotiate standards for yourself to reach a healthier, happier state of work. The phrase has been around for years but its usage spiked last month, according to Google Trends. It seems a natural response to a workplace focus on wellness after 47 million Americans quit their jobs last year.

But quiet quitting is a new enough phrase that everyone can make it mean whatever they want.

Workers rights’ activists can say it represents a noble response to oppressive working conditions. Capitalists can claim it is another sign of weakening American economic might and coddling of the American worker. Others can call it overly privileged to imply some can choose how hard you work.

Gladwell stepped into the same kind of battle with his criticism of remote work, which has become another political food fight: Is increased work flexibility just another goodie for privileged office workers or does it represent an important step in workers’ rights? Like most negotiations, both sides have credible demands.

How has work changed?

In their best light, Gladwell’s comments are uncontroversial: Something special happens when we spend time together in person that virtual alternatives can’t yet replicate. His critics, too, have a sensible argument: It is healthy to build high-quality friendships somewhere other than work.

But we do spend a third of our lives at work. Some of us are lucky enough to enjoy much of what we do, and research shows that’s even sweeter when we like our coworkers. Even committed distributed companies design bonding time, in person and not.

What, then, are we to do with quiet quitting? No one benefits from a worker who overextends themselves for too long. If putting another name to healthier work habits gets more professionals there, then we should be thankful. Burning out and leaving an organization you’d otherwise value is a waste. Healthier work expectations are here to stay.

What quiet quitting doesn’t mean

Using quiet quitting to excuse poor performance is something else entirely. Likewise, arguing today’s workers are lazy is itself lazy. “Nobody wants to work anymore” has become a meme of the moment, inspired in part by a researcher who gathered more than a century worth of newspaper clippings in which business owners lament that their generation of workers were too lazy. As one read from 1922, in the wake of another pandemic: “Nobody wants to work anymore unless they can be paid enough wages to work half of the time and loaf half of the time.”

How can we determine whether our own gripes with workplace flexibility are genuine or advancing a pre-existing political stance? Fittingly, another Canadian-born writer Saul Bellow is credited with the line that comes to mind: “When we ask for advice, we are usually looking for an accomplice.” You already know; plan accordingly.

We just experienced the fastest shift in workplace norms in decades, and the period could be closing. Americans are worried about the threat of a recession — though that sentiment is heavily partisan, and jobs growth remains strong.

The advice is more important, then: Create value, but know your limitations. Work hard, but not too hard. Stretch, but not too far. Be kind to yourself, and to each other, in person or not.

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