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Counterproductive workplace behaviours, as they are called by industrial organisational psychologists, appear to have been on the rise since hybrid working became the norm. Such behaviours have traditionally appeared in many forms, ranging from absenteeism to bullying to theft. Essentially, they consist of any activities that could prove detrimental to the performance of colleagues, other team members or the wider organisation.

The recent high-profile phenomenon of “quiet quitting” could be said to fall under this umbrella, as could behaviour defined by the latest buzzword “quiet constraint”. Quiet constraint is characterised as being when employees sit on valuable knowledge and information rather than share it with their colleagues.

According to a recent survey by learning platform provider Kahoot, about 58% of staff currently indulge in such behaviour, with the figure rising to more than three-quarters of Generation Z workers. It is also a more common practice among men (63%) than women (57%). The most common reasons employees cited for such behaviour included the fact they were never asked to share (26%) and their employer failed to provide them with a suitable channel, or other means, of doing so (23%).

But there are likely to be other factors in the mix, too. “The sudden shift to remote working, with limited processes and technology being put in place, may well be contributing to this trend,” says Tom Cornell, a senior industrial organisational psychology consultant at recruitment software supplier HireVue. “Employees are missing the casual conversations in the office, which not only help people feel connected to their colleagues and enable them to engage with others, but also provide the opportunity for knowledge-sharing over coffee or lunch.”

Technology and processes not up to the job

Because most companies are “unlikely to formalise virtual knowledge-sharing meetings”, Cornell adds, it appears that the situation is less about staff “actively rebelling” and more about current processes or resources not being up to the job.

A potential danger here is that should predicted job losses of up to 500,000 across the UK economy come to pass in the coming months due to recession, which includes additional pain in the tech sector, employees could end up taking their knowledge with them when they leave.

“For more technical and senior roles, this is a particular risk as a loss of knowledge here is more impactful,” says Cornell.

Therefore, he advocates ensuring that suitable enterprise-level knowledge-sharing platforms are in place, even for office-based workers. For example, rather than relying on private messaging systems or texts, setting up group channels on instant messaging platforms, such as Salesforce’s Slack, means everyone who needs to see pertinent information can do so – even if the individual sharing it were to leave the company.

“With Covid, we may have had 10 years of innovation in two years, but the same old leaders, technology and processes are still around. The tech we’re using has just been shoehorned in as it wasn’t built from the ground up to handle a flexible, adult-to-adult, distributed workforce and the challenges that go with it”
Gareth Jones, Thomas International

But Gareth Jones, chief digital officer at talent assessment platform provider Thomas International, is not convinced that current collaboration and communication tools are adequate for employees working in today’s hybrid world. The problem, he believes, is that such software is now mostly old technology that was originally designed for office workers collaborating with other office workers.

“With Covid, we may have had 10 years of innovation in two years, but the same old leaders, technology and processes are still around,” he points out. “The tech we’re using has just been shoehorned in as it wasn’t built from the ground up to handle a flexible, adult-to-adult, distributed workforce and the challenges that go with it.”

While suppliers such as Doist, with its Todoist productivity app and Twist asynchronous-first collaboration app, are a definite improvement, the market here is “still in its infancy in terms of dealing with the new world of work” and has “a long way to go yet”, Jones adds.

Boosting employee motivation and engagement

Sara Holmberg, head of HR at employee experience platform Winningtemp, believes the Kahoot survey was valuable in identifying certain employee experience issues of which employers should be mindful. Although she is not convinced that, beyond the label, quiet quitting is anything new, she agrees that the sharing of information now tends to be less ad hoc and more limited to formal meetings and get-togethers than it was before the pandemic.

She also perceives a link between employees’ willingness to share information and their motivation and engagement levels. “Key things that support motivation are autonomy over how you decide to perform a task, having the resources to do it and feeling supported,” Holmberg explains. “But what can be missing in a hybrid world sometimes is a feeling of connection to others, and if you don’t feel that, you won’t share information automatically as you won’t know if people have good intentions or not.”

As a result, she believes line managers have an important role to play in encouraging this sense of connection. To this end, Holmberg recommends that during team meetings, leaders “share information to the extent they can, and also be open about their own mistakes as it helps create an environment of psychological safety”. The point here is that “you can’t force people to share, but you can build sharing into your company culture – and leaders are a very important stakeholder in making that happen”, she says.

HireVue’s Cornell agrees that management style is an important factor, not least because 26% of respondents indicated they had never actually been asked to share information.

“You can’t force people to share, but you can build sharing into your company culture – and leaders are a very important stakeholder in making that happen”
Sara Holmberg, Winningtemp

“Asking questions like, ‘What are you working on currently?’ or, ‘Have you read anything interesting lately?’ is an easy way to encourage more communication and show employees that they’re valued,” he explains. “Equally, more formal team newsletters highlighting what a particular team is working on, or a ‘show and tell’-style session, where individuals volunteer to talk about a project or topic of interest, is a great way to make this part of your culture.”

Tackling online ennui

Another issue for IT leaders to consider is the sweeping wave of apparent online ennui affecting employees. According to the Kahoot survey, a huge 87% of staff experience boredom at work.

As a result, they zone out of activities, such as online training (35%), virtual presentations (32%) and virtual meetings (31%), and engage with other things instead. These include reading and responding to emails (45%), playing with their pets (23%) and taking a nap (20%).

Thomas International’s Jones believes a key problem in this context is that “we’re still using old paradigms in a new context”.

He points out: “The reality is that we had too many pointless meetings when we were in the office all the time as we equated presence with contributing – and we’re still using the same paradigm when people are remote. There are still too many meetings, but there also aren’t that many tools to push asynchronous communications to the fore to suit the new working dynamics.”

Another challenge, observes Ian Ellahee, director of customer success for the UK and Europe at HR system supplier HiBob, is that three years on from the start of the pandemic, how do you keep things interesting, engaging and interactive for remote and hybrid workers in an on-screen context?

“Sitting behind a screen is a non-personal way to interact and, as humans, we’re not designed for that,” he says. “We’re engineered to interact socially, so I don’t think anyone has the answer to the problem just yet.”

But that does not mean things cannot be done to help. For example, in the case of online meetings, Ellahee advises against simply getting people together for the sake of it.

“There needs to be a clear agenda so people understand what the meeting is about and what it aims to achieve, to give them the freedom to opt out if they don’t feel they can add value,” he says. “There are also issues around format and hygiene, which means allowing everyone time to contribute, and having a chairperson to facilitate questions and discussion and ensure there’s a clear outcome so everyone feels it’s a productive use of their time.”

Is technology enough? 

Another important consideration, Ellahee adds, is that individuals often experience overload if communications are too one-way. As a result, in an online training context, for example, his firm offers information to staff in “short bursts”, which it supplements with other activities when they come into the office.

“We have refresher discussions and workshops to revisit content and get people to talk about what they’re learned, so there are checks and balances and opportunities to put things into practice,” he explains. “There’s definitely a place for online learning, but the worst case is when information is just thrown at people, so you have to be conscious of how they consume information, the size of the audience, and even the time of the day and week it is.”

The upside with most standard communication and collaboration tools is that they contain features such as the ability to create polls, breakout rooms and emojis to show audience reactions, Ellahee adds. This helps to make the experience more interactive and, therefore, more interesting.

But in Jones’s view, there is still a big gap in the market for software that is aimed at employees themselves rather than offerings that have been designed with providing management information to leaders in mind.

“To really work for a distributed workforce, tools have to be designed for ‘me’, not people who manage people and who will instruct me to use them,” he says. “The user interface has to be compelling, engaging and easy to navigate so people can interact seamlessly with their peers and share information cross-functionally, but I’m not seeing it at the moment.”

As Jones makes very clear, when trying to solve these kinds of challenges, technology alone can simply never be enough. “As a leader, if you can create a positive environment where people are keen to show up, even virtually, they’ll be much more engaged and motivated. So, ultimately, it’s really about great leadership,” he concludes.

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