"Quiet quitting," "career polygamy," "overemployment," "mouse-jigglers," and "DJs for work meetings"? Social media has exploded with stories of employees rejecting "hustle culture," reclaiming work-life balance, and prioritizing their own well-being over their allegedly thankless and greedy employers. So how do you protect your business and ensure that your employees are productive and not preparing to dump you—oh so softly—or even cheat on you?
The workplace has dramatically changed since the beginning of the pandemic. Unprecedented numbers of employees are leaving the workforce and employers are struggling to keep or recruit scarce labor. Some employers adapted and transformed their workplaces and culture to improve retention by offering more flexibility and better benefits.
Some employees who remain unsatisfied, however, are adopting novel work behaviors. Some employees are "quiet quitting" for example, that is reducing their commitment to and productivity at work to focus their efforts on only their core job duties, avoiding work beyond their job description. Other employees are spicing up their work-life relationship and pursuing a polygamous career, often without their employer's knowledge or consent. "Career polygamy" or "overemployment" made possible by the work-from-home phenomenon, refers to employees who generate income through an assortment of jobs and projects, rather than focusing their career with one employer at a time. These employees juggle two or three full-time remote jobs every day without their employers' knowledge. To remain undetected, the over-employed may employ elements of deceit: some use technology and other techniques to create the impression they are currently working when they are not. For example, employees may use multiple desktops and monitors, one for each job, including portable audio mixers (aka "meeting DJs") to bounce between simultaneous Zoom meetings. Some may even use "mouse jigglers," devices that simulate mouse movement, to prevent their computer from going into sleep mode so it appears they are actively at work. These trends and employees' acknowledging them on social media1 evidence serious changes in employees' productivity, values, and mindset towards their employers. Other employees pool resources by sharing multiple jobs and splitting salaries, resulting in someone performing work for an employer for which the employer has no information, no background checks, and no acknowledgments of key policies.
Why should employers care? A workplace where the culture is shaped by employees who insist on doing the bare minimum, either in one or multiple jobs, can create an environment that adversely impacts productivity and retention, and potentially stifles innovation and competitiveness. Employers may no longer be able to rely on their workers to go above and beyond their job descriptions when needed – to stay late, arrive early, anticipate problems, and proactively help their coworkers. Employers may also face an unanticipated loss in morale and could be faced with combating decreased morale among employees who reject the quiet-quitting mindset and, therefore, end up working tirelessly to pick up the pieces dropped by others.
What can employers do to rebuild security and trust within their workforce and also protect their business?2 Employers can:
- Connect. Invest. Trust. In such a fast-paced and technology-driven society, genuine human connection is the foundation of solid relationships. Consider sitting down with employees frequently simply to listen without judgment or agenda. Learn about their experience at work and their individual goals and expectations. Employers should invest in their employees by mentoring, motivating, providing quality supervision and reassuring employees that they are valued and not just another number in the workforce. Trust that employees who feel valued will reciprocate and commit to their business.
- Transparency. Employers should reassess the expectations they have for their employees in this post-COVID-19 era, and revamp their job descriptions, offer letters and performance review criteria accordingly. Employers should take steps to ensure these documents accurately reflect the duties expected of employees by providing accurate and measurable criteria at the outset of employment. If employers are transparent and clearly communicate exactly what is expected of employees, perhaps employees will reciprocate. While updating expectations and providing objective goals is important, employers should be cognizant of avoiding disparate impact or treatment across protected groups when upgrading expectations and think honestly about the utility of the measures the guidelines use.
- Reward. "Take time to appreciate employees and they will reciprocate in a thousand ways." – Dr. Bob Nelson. Human beings want the recognition of other human beings. Employers should reassess and adjust their employee bonuses, incentives, benefits and career opportunities for those employees that demonstrate commitment and enthusiasm for their employer. In doing so, employers should be cognizant that rewards often trigger unintended wage obligations, like overtime recalculations, and a patchwork of laws that may impact what may be due and when, despite the terms of the incentive plan, when employees suffer adverse employment events.
- Monitor. The New York Times recently reported that eight out of the ten largest private employers in the United States are tracking productivity metrics for their employees, including measuring active time, checking for keyboard pauses and even counting keystrokes. And while such monitoring is subject to criticism and scrutiny by employees, labor unions, and the public, employers should continue to consider how they track their employees' productivity. In the end, employers have a vested interest in ensuring employees are maintaining productivity and achieving goals. For some, productivity software can be a means to an end. Employers should also consider scheduling more frequent video meetings and check-in calls with employees during the workday to ensure compliance and maintain engagement. In reviewing key improvements to productivity measurement metrics, however, employers should be careful to comply with laws protecting employees' rights to privacy. Snooping through your employee's laptop camera, using biometrics to confirm the identity of the worker performing the work, tracking your employees' movements throughout the day, and reviewing an employee's device (even if owned by the company) without consent can result in varying amounts of risk in jurisdictions across the country. Moreover, the idea what some regard as "surveillance software" can negatively impact public and labor relations if not carefully considered.
- Document. Enforce. Employers should consider implementing or updating moonlighting policies that prohibit employees from working additional jobs while employed, or at least require disclosure or consent. Employers should also consider reviewing conflict of interest, business ethics, and unfair competition agreements to arm themselves with the ability to prohibit certain conduct. Finally, privacy policies should be carefully considered and expanded to allow for the company to utilize appropriate productivity software so that it can more effectively manage its workforce, and for employees to understand how employer scrutiny may change going forward.
It will be tempting for employers to view these trends cynically, to despair over the loss of loyalty and work ethic among employees, and to react with stricter rules and monitoring to impose external standards on those who they see as lacking internal motivation. We believe the better long-term approach, however, will recognize that active involvement in the success of an enterprise makes employees personally happier and more valuable to the business than they could possibly be from "quiet quitting" and other ways of gaming the system. Employers that focus on such engagement, including recognizing and rewarding truly productive behavior by employees, may come through these developments better off than they were before.
1. Examples on social media and the Internet abound, but one such example are the discussions at www.overemployed.com.
2. For more information about the changing nature of work and what employers can do about it, see Claire Deason, Finding Beauty in Change, The Metamorphosis of Work, Littler Video (2022).
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.