Quiet quitting, the gender pay gap: Was 2022 a tipping point for workers?

It was a year that saw employees shoulder increased workloads, burnout, and the stress of a rising cost of living. After three years of the pandemic, terms like working from home and ‘the great resignation’ are part of the lexicon. But what is next?

Below, the biggest workplace trends of 2022 – our Spotify Wrapped for work, if you will.


Remote and hybrid working

Perhaps the biggest after-effect of the pandemic is the widespread normalisation of working from home. Workers were no longer expected to be in the office, five days a week, and technology developed in lockstep to cater to this.

While many organisations rolled out return-to-office plans this year, flexible work remains important to workers. In a digital CBD in Melbourne study, Dr Julian Waters-Lynch, a lecturer in innovation, entrepreneurship and organisational design at RMIT, found that as of April 2022, the city was only at 50 per cent of the hours that would typically be worked in the CBD, compared to pre-pandemic levels. Data from Seek shows that the ability to work from home is the top priority for jobseekers, and more than one in three Australian workers say that they’d quit their jobs if they weren’t able to work from home.

The exception to this, says Waters-Lynch, are workers in the under-30 category. This is in part, he notes, due to the many benefits to career progression that come from working in person, such as observing, listening, and mentoring. He also says that young people are less likely to have a “big nice house”, and are often in living situations that make working from home less attractive. Plus, he adds, for older people who might have children, the allures of the city, like going out for a drink after work, are less of an option.

But while hybrid or remote work models have become the norm, they’ve done little to change traditional gender relations in the home.

“There was a period during COVID when people were working from home,” where it was thought there might be a “circuit breaker” in the imbalance between, says Marian Baird AO, professor of Gender and Employment Relations at the University of Sydney. Working from home, men, it was thought, might become more cognisant of the work needed to run a household and change their behaviour. But it’s become clear that this hasn’t changed, Baird says, and women might even be picking up more of the household load with greater work flexibility.

The demand for increased pay

In 2022, Australians faced a soaring cost of living and rising inflation that meant ever-tighter purse strings. But wages, for the most part, failed to ease the pain.

While the majority of organisations are budgeting in salary increases, says Cynthia Cottrell, leader of Mercer Pacific’s Workforce Consulting and Products business, it’s clear that on average, this increase will not match the rate of inflation.

From her research with Mercer, Cottrell has found that Australian employees are less likely to approach their employers for a pay rise. Instead, they’re more likely to seek a wage increase by just looking for another job. It’s a “real warning to all employers in this country” that they need to make bold changes if they want to retain employees.

Lagging wage growth is an even greater issue for women. Data released earlier this month from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency shows that for the first time in 2022, progress to close the gender pay gap has stalled. Their data reveals that the disparity between men and women’s salaries remains at 22.8 per cent, or, on average, $26,596.

Closing the gender pay gap is “difficult, given clear demarcations in the Australian labour market,” says Baird, where women make up the bulk of professions that are underpaid. Until we change this, she says, and the seniority of women within their professions, we can’t expect to see the pay gap close. “We need structural change,” she stresses.

The “great resignation”

One thing the pandemic did was force us to reevaluate our work/life balance. Increasingly, workers left their jobs in search of greater flexibility and fulfilment. In February this year, the Bureau of Statistics reported a surge in the number of workers job-switching.

Now, with unemployment at an all-time low, “employees are absolutely in the driver’s seat,” says Cottrell. Workers, she says, are no longer solely interested in better wages and benefits. “The pandemic created the sense that work could be much more than just the nine to five. Work needs to be more meaningful.” She says that the challenge employers face now is to make work better, fairer, and more accessible. And, she adds, this needs to be done in collaboration with employees.

Quiet quitting

As the cost of living grew, inflation skyrocketed and workers shouldered increasingly heavy workloads, the idea of “quiet quitting” went viral. Rather than quit their jobs, workers simply did the bare minimum. They started at nine and clocked off at five. They took a full hour for lunch. They stopped going above and beyond. Quiet quitting was the antidote to “girl boss” and hustle culture.

While Cottrell agrees that quiet quitting has been a global phenomenon, she points out that Australia is unique in the sense that workers really have the upper hand in the job market, given such low rates of unemployment. “Job switching is at an all-time high, and employees are voting with their feet.”

So, what’s next?

The technological hybridisation of hybrid work is a sector to look out for, says Waters-Lynch. The share of new patent applications supporting work from home technologies has doubled since 2020, for instance, signalling that the hybrid work model is here to stay. “Meetings work well when everyone is either on Zoom or everyone is physically in the meeting room,” says Waters-Lynch, “but don’t work super well hybrid.” He cites poor audio and camera quality, and the positioning of cameras so that it doesn’t feel like people are looking you in the eye, as issues in this space. There’s an “anthropological effect”, he says, where it can be hard to pick up on body language or make eye contact that are key factors in building trustworthiness.

Waters-Lynch also expects to see greater investment in premium, central office spaces, with higher amenities, and more spaces for cultural interaction. After all, if the hybrid work model is here to stay, then people will need greater incentives to go into the office.

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