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Quiet office quitters should take this advice

In Herman Melville’s 1853 short story Bartleby, the Scrivener, the eponymous Wall Street clerk embarks on a mysterious go-slow, then an all-out strike, while staying in the office. “I’d rather not,” becomes her refrain when her boss asks her to write documents.

Some of their modern counterparts adopt a less provocative tactic of “quietly weaning.” The idea quickly gained notoriety after Zaid Khan, a 24-year-old software developer, posted a TikTok video of himself sitting in a New York City subway station, pondering his own interpretation. His sweet narration over soft piano music had an appropriately soothing effect.

“You don’t simply quit your job, but you give up the idea of ​​going beyond it. You’re still doing your job, but you’re no longer subscribing to the hustle culture mentality where work has to be your life,” Khan reflected in July. Her post struck a chord, generating 3.4 million views this week and countless sympathetic responses on social media.

It can be infuriating for companies and managers to deal with a new breed of passively compliant employees who do just enough to get by and clock in when their contractual hours are up. But it makes sense: After decades of work intensification, lofty goals, and a culture of restlessness, young employees have developed an effective way to push back.

The phenomenon is not really new. Workplaces were always filled with both ambitious people looking for a promotion and others keeping up with their pace. Although management journals offer advice on how to motivate workers and engage them in teams to achieve what author Jim Collins once called “big, bold goals,” not everyone wants to aim for the moon.

But work has become more stressful for many in the wake of the pandemic, the shift to remote working and a wave of resignations. There are severe staff shortages in transport and other industries, intensifying pressures on those left behind. Gen Z may be quietly quitting, or what one former teacher calls “quiet work,” but many older workers have quit altogether.

“Workers are now being asked to do more than is sustainable,” says Sim Sitkin, a management professor at Duke University. “It’s like running a sprint – you can’t maintain that pace for a whole marathon.” He cites a doorman he met recently in New York who had to work 80 hours a week due to a shortage of staff.

Young professionals already face high expectations. In some professions, such as banking and law, junior associates are required to work long hours and be intensely committed in return for high starting salaries. There is a constant risk of burnout before being promoted to jobs with greater autonomy.

Companies have also stirred up rebellions against themselves by outsourcing jobs and limiting job security. This has prompted young workers to develop a “parallel restlessness”, dividing their time between working to pay the bills and creative projects in which they are passionately engaged. This makes them more likely to quietly stop and devote more time and energy to their own ideas.

The silent abandonment is a moderate response to the “tang ping” (lying down flat), youth rebellion against mind-numbing work that emerged in China last year amid government alarm. The term was coined by Luo Huazhong, a 26-year-old who quit his job to go on a trip: “I just hung out and see nothing wrong with it,” he wrote.

But anyone considering quietly quitting should be careful. If a company finds that its employees are sneakily disengaging, it may take the educated view that it should raise wages and adopt a softer managerial approach. He could also decide to toughen employment contracts, introduce more control and eliminate the ability for individuals to go slower.

Some professionals enjoy a great deal of freedom, compared to delivery drivers or warehouse operators, whose work rhythm is monitored thanks to technology. This latitude is partly explained by the less quantifiable nature of many professional jobs, but it is also a deliberate strategy to foster initiative and creativity. If one party withdraws from the implicit labor market, the other could do so as well.

So here’s my advice for quiet quitters. First, come to the office regularly and be observed in person, rather than hiding at home too much. Offices are great places to feel like you’re working, while drinking coffee, chatting with others, and taking a break. Just showing up physically sends a message of commitment to work these days.

Second, relax by doing your job well during the agreed upon hours, rather than constantly slacking off (with the exception of conversations in the workplace). The former forces employers to hire more people, while the latter often requires colleagues to fill in the gaps. This does not count as an ethical rebellion if the people most affected are colleagues.

Finally, do it discreetly. If you change course too abruptly, managers will notice and things could get awkward. Making it obvious also invites others to join in, which will definitely set off alarm bells. If you want to quit quietly, you have to work at it.

john.gapper@ft.com

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