“Quiet Quitting”: A Rational Approach to Work? A Japan Perspective

There has been a lot of talk about so-called “quiet quitting” in the media these days. It refers to the practice of workers doing their primary duties but not going above and beyond with their commitment to the job. Part of the evidence of quiet quitting is when non-hourly employees work just an eight-hour day, starting work at nine and ending soon after five. It has also come to mean that the employees are not really doing their best, just kind of going through the motions. They can do this because the labor market is very tight, and companies do not want to fire employees.

There’s a lot to unpack with the idea of “quiet quitting.” A few observations:

  1. The focus is solely on the employees’ actions and not on how the workplace and management may be contributing to the employees’ perspective.
  2. Quitting is quitting, giving up, and moving on, so the phenomenon of “quiet quitting” is quite the misnomer.

Much of my early business experience was working in Japan. The one thing I always say about that time is it is neither good nor bad, just different. I spent several years working in downtown Tokyo, in the head offices of two large language schools, with maybe two or three non-Japanese in an office of a few hundred Japanese. 

One thing we learned pretty quickly is the Japanese custom of extremely long hours at the office. Note I didn’t say extremely productive long hours, as I soon came to believe that time in the office was most uncorrelated to productive work outcomes. In other words, the long hours, for the most part, were not highly productive. Success doesn’t count from being there; it only comes from action, and my perspective was that the social obligation to be in the office was not, for the most part, something that resulted in productivity.

My office space consisted of six desks in a corner office, with the vice president of the company on one end facing the four desks–one of which was mine–facing each other. My boss, a department head–was at the other end. Our hours were 8:40 pm (20 minutes unpaid for “prepare for work” time) until 5 pm. I was always there by 8:30 am, leaving very soon after 5:00 pm. I was usually one of the first to leave our floor, but due to my office location and elevator’s location, most would not see me come and go. The vice president did, though!

This was a man who would show up at 9:00 am, read the paper from front to back, get coffee, have a smoke, and maybe make his first attempt at real work around 10 am. He would then go to lunch at noon and usually return around 1:30 pm. He might return with the afternoon newspaper and read that for an hour or so. He’d also water all the plants in the office a few times a week, work on his golf stroke and take a 10-15 minute smoke break six to eight times a day. 

He was, without a doubt, maybe “working” 4-5 hours from 9-5. Yet, when I would leave at 5 pm, he commented every day with something like, “leaving so soon” or “I don’t go home until nine every day.” I wanted to tell him if he worked diligently during the day, he could go home sooner at night, but even in my early days in Japan, I knew that social pressure was much more potent than self-determination. It was not my place to try to change the work culture.

Indeed, Japan ranks high for hours worked, but overall, Japanese productivity per hour on an international scale is relatively low, much lower than all G7 countries. I always wondered if less focus on time in the office would have two benefits: greater non-work life satisfaction AND higher work productivity.

In my mind, I did not feel bad about leaving “early.” I worked extremely hard during the day, did not take breaks, and often ate lunch at my desk. It was taxing, creative work, so in my mind, a good eight hours was far more beneficial to the company than a lazy, unproductive 11 hours. If we go just by the hours spent in the office, I would guess I could have been accused of “quiet quitting.”

My point is that businesses should strive to have workers that see what they do during their work hours as more important than the sheer volume of work hours. Yes, for certain, an unproductive eight, but we need to go beyond hours in the office as a metric of productivity.