How Utilities Can Combat Quiet Quitting

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to recede into the rear-view mirror, a new management challenge — employees who are “quiet quitting” —– has emerged. It’s not entirely a new phenomenon: in earlier times, workers who performed at a minimally acceptable level were deemed to be “mailing it in.”


But what’s new and different about quiet quitting is that it is partly driven by business leaders who feel some urgency about bringing remote workers back to the office. Some are gently encouraging these workers, highlighting the personal mentoring and networking that can only take place on a face-to-face basis in the office. Others are taking a harder line: Return by a specific date, they are telling remote workers, or consider yourself fired.

Increasingly, workers who can work remotely are in a test of wills with managers who prefer, sometimes strongly, that workers work in the office.

Many people who could work remotely during the pandemic found they liked it, for all sorts of reasons, and productivity typically didn’t suffer. In fact, in some cases, it improved, largely, I would say, because workers felt more empowered when they had more control over when, where, and how they performed their work tasks.

Of course, not all workers can work from a nearby Starbucks or their apartments or homes. Lineworkers can’t restore power remotely. Despite all their automation, power plants still need some personnel on site. Those who performed hands-on operational  tasks powered through the pandemic by modifying workplace rules, wearing masks, and sucking it up.

Quiet Quitting: New Term, Old Challenge

“Quiet quitting” is a catchy term, and it has spawned an avalanche of analysis and commentary. The Wall Street Journal has been running podcasts and articles on the topic since 2022, when the term apparently was coined. Many other major news organizations, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, also have run articles on one aspect or another of that topic over the last year. Business magazines like Forbes and local news outlets have run articles on quiet quitting. Management consulting firms also have weighed in, with numerous pieces readily available from McKinsey & Company, Boston Consulting Group, Deloitte, and others.

I tend to see the current “quiet quitting” trend mostly as old wine in new bottles. Why? Maybe it’s because I’m a big fan of the “all that is old is new again” school of thought.

While technologies, regulations, and consumer preferences change all the time, some of the basics don’t. Businesses need employees, and thus managers continually wrestle with the best way to get workers to bring their hearts and brains to their work. How can employees be optimally productive? How should teams be organized? How do you motivate, manage, lead, and reward them? And, when necessary, let them go? These are management challenges that existed long before quiet quitting was coined as a term last year.

That means there are also challenges that fall on communicators who are engaged in employee communications.

Before the tech boom went bust at the beginning of this century, some companies tried to attract and retain talent with perks like free custom-cooked food, mid-day napping pods, bring your dog to work days, and scheduling ping pong tournaments (sometimes with beer and wine) in the office. One management consulting firm I interviewed had a concierge service where people were paid to water their plants and pick up their dry cleaning while they were away at a client site.

Will those type of work amenities offset 90-minute commutes, 60-hour work weeks, awful managers, and soul-deadening work? Not for long, no.

My views on employee engagement were shaped eons ago when I read a Harvard Business Review article, One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees? The article has become part of the standard organizational behavior literature at business schools across the country.

Gallup Documents Quiet Quitting

In Gallup’s recently issued State of the Workplace: 2023 Report, the public-opinion survey organization found that 66% of workers around the world are engaged in some form of quiet quitting. That loss of employee commitment is costing businesses an estimated $8.8 trillion per year, roughly 9% of global gross domestic product (GDP).

Communications tip of the month: Quiet quitting is like dry rot in wood — often you can’t see it until it’s too late. Rather than launching an employee communications campaign once quiet quitting becomes apparent, utility internal communications practitioners need to work proactively and continually to engage employees by connecting them to their utility’s business activities.

The report also showed that nearly a quarter of workers around the world are feeling highly engaged (see pie charts, below).

Source: Gallup

The study defined quiet quitters as employees who are filling a seat and watching the clock. They put in the minimum effort required, and they are psychologically disconnected from their employer. Although they are minimally productive, they are more likely to be stressed and burnt out than engaged workers because they feel lost and disconnected from their workplace.

The survey also found that 51% of currently employed workers said they are watching for or actively seeking a new job.

Quiet Quitting: What Duke Energy Discovered

Source: Duke Energy

Earlier this summer, as the media chatter about quiet quitting was getting louder and more insistent, I saw in a LinkedIn post that Duke Energy won a prestigious Silver Anvil award for its employee communications from the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). So, I reached out to Paige Layne, (left) director of employee communications for that utility, to discuss the award and quiet quitting.

I thought the two were related. They were not.

During the summer of 2021, Duke Energy assigned its employees one of three work classifications:


  1. Onsite: plant workers and other field employees who are at their job site every day;
  2. Virtual: employees working remotely 100% of the time; or
  3. Hybrid: where employees work two or three days in the office each week and remotely the other days.

Paige, who had only shortly before that assumed her directorship of employee communications, said she relied on research to determine two things: how were employees receiving information, and how did they want to receive information? Also important in the research was understanding how connected employees were to the company’s overall clean energy strategy.

Ultimately, she learned that employees who were very knowledgeable about the company’s clean energy strategy had a significantly more favorable opinion of the company compared to those who were less well-, or not at all, informed about Duke Energy’s strategy. Using “favorability” as a proxy for employees who were “engaged” or “committed,” she asked her team to focus on creating content that demonstrated how employees and their day-to-day work furthered Duke Energy’s mission and values.

Source: Duke Energy

“Employees want to hear directly from the CEO on C-level issues, like progress toward our  clean energy goals,” she said. “Employees also gave high marks to the company’s internal online Portal and their direct supervisors for being trusted channels for information.”

Paige manages the front page of Duke Energy’s employee Portal. So, she made sure that real estate was narrowly focused on topics  of greatest interest to employees.

Turns out, Duke Energy employees liked reading about … other Duke Energy employees.

So, armed with a commitment to telling stories, rather than “sending out stuff,” Paige and her team deployed their storytelling skills to keep all of Duke Energy’s nearly 28,000 employees across seven states connected to the company’s business and values.

“If employees feel connected to the organization’s strategy and values, they can find purpose in their work and are more likely to remain at the company,” she told me. “We’re leading the country’s largest clean energy transition and we want our employees to be excited about that and about their personal contribution to achieving success.

The best way to do that? “Tell stories,” she said. “Information” with no context or emotion is “boring, flat, and dull,” but telling stories engages employees and inspires them to act on things that matter.

Headquartered in college basketball-obsessed North Carolina, Paige said one of the annual communications the utility distributes to employees stresses the importance of NOT using office time or equipment to bet on the March Madness college basketball tournament. In previous years, the utility shared information with employees that went something like this: No office pools that involve money, property or anything of value.”

But Paige and her team, armed with a keen understanding of the power of telling stories, invited employees to share where they played college basketball. Some played in the Carolinas — at North Carolina State, North Carolina A&T, Wingate and Winthrop. But others played for the U.S. Naval Academy and Syracuse.

While highlighting their former collegiate players provided a unique hook, an important message — cheer on your team, but don’t bet on them — was subtly woven into the content.

“We had great engagement (readership and comments) from employees who learned for the first time that one of their teammates had played in the tournament years ago and was actually part of a national championship team,” Paige said. “The best part was being able to share important work guidelines in a way that piqued employee interest.”

“If you don’t have a feedback loop you don’t know how well your message is getting through the clutter,” she continued. “We track several key performance indicators to determine communication success. For instance, the success of our safety communications is not based on clicks and views, although that’s important. Instead, it’s tied to actual safety incidents, which is a better indicator of communication and overall business success.”

“Like most companies, we were watching the employee commitment trends when the worst of the COVID pandemic started to pass, in early 2021. But we never felt the need to mount a ‘combat quiet quitting’ communications campaign with our employees. There was no reason to fight something that didn’t exist on a widespread basis.”

With nearly 28,000 employees serving customers in seven states, Duke Energy has one of the larger footprints in the U.S. utility business. But because they have worked hard to engage employees, not just inform them, quiet quitting is one of the challenges they  have yet to worry about.

Is that the case at your utility?

Photo Credits: iStock unless otherwise noted

Additional EEC Resources on Employee Engagement






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