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Has remote work increased the chances of ghosting an employer?

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Office Space, Mike Judge’s cult-classic workplace comedy from 1999, offers a prescient example of the current “ghost quitting” trend. Early in the film, Joanna (Jennifer Aniston), a waitress at a kitschy diner, is confronted by her boss (Judge) over her lack of ambition in regards to her “flair.” At Chotchkie’s, staff are required to wear a minimum of 15 pieces of “flair” (colourful pins and badges), meant to demonstrate their personality. While Jonna is wearing the requisite 15 pieces, her boss chastises her for only doing the bare minimum required for her job.

“Now if you feel that the bare minimum is enough, then okay,” he concedes in a disappointing tone. “But some people choose to wear more and we encourage that, okay?” Fed up with the restaurant’s nebulous expectations that seem to be punishing her for doing her job properly, Joanna quits on the spot. In her mind, no menial job is worth this level of painstaking oversight and second-guessing.

Looking at the scenario today, Jonna may have been “quiet quitting” her job for some time – doing the minimum amount of work to avoid being fired, without ever going above and beyond. That “quiet quitting” attitude may have led to her “ghost quitting” – walking off the job with no notice.

Sometimes used interchangeably, “ghost quitting” and “quiet quitting” are terms that have sprung up in the post-COVID business world. Remote work has increased dramatically, and workers have begun placing a larger emphasis on their mental health and work-life balance.

What is Ghosting an Employer?

Ghost quitting refers to the practice of employees “ghosting” their workplace by either never returning to work without notice or quitting on the spot. The term is often used to describe younger staff suddenly leaving their jobs, but ghosting has no age limit. Instead of offering the traditional two-week notice, staff are simply leaving when they’ve had enough.

When COVID forced many businesses to reduce or eliminate in-person work in early 2020, it sparked a new relationship with work for countless employees around the globe. Many of those fortunate enough to be able to work from home found a work-life balance that drastically changed how they approached their jobs. Work was no longer about the need to physically be in a particular space for 8 hours a day. As long as your work was being done, you could also be doing laundry, cooking, or any other home activity usually reserved for evenings or weekends.

Workers also appreciated having their daily commute reduced to moving from their bedroom to their living room, and the rise of teleconferencing meant that we could all work in pajama pants with our co-workers being none the wiser. Working from home was also a boon for those with young children, disabilities, chronic pain, or any issue exasperated by traveling each day, especially in the middle of a potentially life-threatening pandemic.

Are People Still Working Remotely Now That the Pandemic is Ending?

In January 2021, close to a year into the pandemic, a whopping 5.4 million Canadian employees were still working from home, according to Statista. That number has begun to decrease as most COVID restrictions have been lifted in the country. A Statistics Canada labour force survey from August 2022 found that the number of Canadians working exclusively from home fell from nearly 25% in early 2022 to 17% by the summer of 2022.

Despite the popular notion of things “returning to normal,” many workers have no desire to return to full-time office work. A 2022 survey by the personal finance app Hardbacon found that 80% of Canadian remote workers would quit their job and seek new employment if forced to return to the office. The primary reason they cited was the rising cost of commuting, including soaring gas prices. According to Hardbacon, “respondents estimate an average daily spend of $26 in out-of-pocket expenses related to going to the office. Annualized, this cost amounts to $6,760 per employee.

Understanding the reasons why workers don’t want to return to the office is vital when considering the trend of “ghost quitting.” Many employees are also conscious of the fact that they can likely find new employment if they leave their current job. Even with threats of a looming recession on the horizon, Canadian job vacancies hit a record high of over a million in Q2 of 2022.

How Does Ghost Quitting Impact a Business?

While the data supports the notion that a worker who “ghost quits” can likely find another job, it doesn’t account for the cultural shift that has occurred around the concept of quitting. The accepted standard for many years was the notion of giving your employer a two-week notice before leaving a job. The idea was to offer your employer the time to find someone new for the role and to help integrate the new employee into your position, allowing for as smooth a transition as possible.

That system helped employees, as well as employers, and also left the door open for an employee to potentially return in the future, given that an employee left in a courteous manner. “Ghost quitting” changes all of that. Leaving a job suddenly and without warning can wreak havoc within a company, leaving other employees scrambling to pick up the pieces until the employer can find a replacement.

As most Canadians have surely witnessed in the past couple of years, filling an available position is not always that easy. The sheer amount of “help wanted” signs in windows of businesses, especially in service industry jobs, has led many to speculate of a “mass resignation” in Canada, though the numbers are nowhere near as severe as those experienced in the United States during the pandemic.

Are We Going to See More of Ghost Quitting?

While some of those shortages may be due to “ghost quitting,” we are also in the midst of a generational shift in Canada, with many baby boomers taking themselves out of the job market to start early retirement. The idea of blaming young employees for not wanting to return to work after receiving Government COVID subsidies has run wild in Canada, but the statistics prove the opposite. According to Statistics Canada, workforce participation by those aged 25-54 grew to 88% in May of 2022, over one percent higher than pre-COVID levels.

The concept of “ghost quitting” may be forever tied to the rise in remote working, but the reality is likely more complex than that. The pandemic has undoubtedly changed the way many of us think about our work-life balance, and how we want to spend our days. Pre-COVID, the rise of “hustler culture” was on the rise, a trend that celebrated putting in extra hours and working as hard as possible. That culture has primarily been replaced with a greater focus on self-care, assuring that we are taking care of ourselves mentally and physically alongside our work.

Is the rise of “ghost quitting” due to the lack of supervision from employers over those employees working remotely? Has the working from home trend allowed employees to distance themselves so much from their employers that they feel comfortable quitting with no notice regardless of the possible consequences to their career?

According to a 2021 Gallup poll, 33% of Canadian and U.S. employees were engaged at work and 60% were thriving in their well-being. While that number shows room for improvement on both ends of the work-life spectrum, Canada and U.S. rank far ahead of the rest of the world in terms of work engagement – a positive sign for the future as we progress through the effects of the pandemic.

How do employers stop employees from ghost quitting?

So, what can be done to curb the trend of “ghost quitting?” Whether employees are working in an office, remotely, or via a hybrid model, employers will have to reach out to their staff to ensure they are motivated and supported in their work. Only a drastic change in the relationship between employers and employees can help keep the tide of “ghost quitting” at bay.

Given how many employees prefer working from home, offering staff the ability to work from home (even a few days a week) can increase employee satisfaction and help them maintain the proper work-life balance that will keep them actively engaged in their work. Forcing staff to return to in-person work full time will likely only lead to more employees “ghost quitting” – sticking it out until they can’t take it any longer and quitting on the spot, or simply never returning to work.

Employers will need to be more flexible regarding options for working remotely when the position allows for it if they want to increase staff loyalty. The genie is out of the bottle at this point. If employers aren’t offering staff the ability to work from home at least part of the work week, staff know they can likely find another job that will.

The lack of remote working options isn’t the only reason staff are “ghost quitting”. Employers need to ensure that their workplace is free from harassment (verbal and physical), intimidation, and any other negative factors that have no place in a work environment.

Going forward, employers will need to rethink how they communicate with their staff to avoid “ghost quitting.” For example, younger staff prefer texting or online chatting to in-person meetings; working with staff to ensure they feel comfortable and valued is the best way to increase loyalty and pride at work.

Employees should also ensure they have a strong HR department where employees can feel secure airing any grievances or issues they may have at work. If an employee feels supported and trusted at work, regardless of where they are physically working, “ghost quitting” will be the furthest thing from their mind.

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