You can’t scroll through LinkedIn or even TikTok nowadays without seeing articles or discussions about “quiet quitting” and “acting your wage.” By now, most people know what these terms mean and how they differ slightly, but ultimately both mean: “Do the job you were hired for and only during the hours, you’re being paid to work.” There are a lot of opinions on these two tropes. Some people see it as a generation looking to be lazy and get paid for doing the bare minimum to not be fired. Others see it as just a step in the inevitable revolution against capitalism. While the debate is raging on whether quiet quitting is good or bad, there is a part of the conversation that I believe is being missed: invisible work. Invisible work can be defined as “Necessary tasks and activities that benefit the company but go unrecognized, are underappreciated, and don’t lead to career advancement.”
Invisible work can be understood in three ways: the cleaner/organizer, the mother, and the helper.
The cleaner/organizer keeps the office functioning. Is there always paper in the copier when you use it? Do you find staplers, paper clips, pens etc. in the supply closet when you need them? Does the battery-powered clock always function? That’s invisible work. Are there always tissues? Do the lights get turned on before you arrive and turned off after you leave? Do the plants in your office get watered and placed in high sunlight areas? That’s invisible work. This is far from an exhaustive list. If you think those are small things, understand that these small jobs add up to a lot when there is only one or a handful of people completing them. It’s possible that your department has an Office Manager who completes these tasks, but there are other forms of invisible work.
Invisible work often also includes the mothering of the office. Does the kitchen or coffee station stay stocked with your preferred snacks of coffee flavors? Are birthdays celebrated with cake and snacks? That’s invisible work. Have you or your coworkers ever received a sympathy or celebratory card signed by everyone in the office? Are there holidays parties, gift exchanges, pot lucks etc? That’s invisible work. Are there air fresheners or decorative items throughout the office? You guessed it… invisible work. These things are not required in a professional setting, but any office that wants to create bonding experiences, or, at the very least, amicable working partners, utilizes them.
The final aspect of invisible work is the helper expectation. In many offices women function as the helpers. They read and edit other people’s emails, memos, articles etc. They show people how to utilize technologies they’re experienced with. They listen to people’s problems–both personal and professional. They help with research or prep for other people’s projects, and in a dozen other ways. That’s invisible work.
The issue is these women have their own work to do. So when asked to help, they have 3 options:
1) Help the person, let their own work get behind/done late and risk poor work reviews leading to less upward mobility and possible loss of their position.
2) Set boundaries by declining to help in which case they are seen as being harsh, mean or “not a team player” which means they risk poor work reviews leading to less upward mobility and possible loss of their position.
3) They help the person, then use their personal time to make up their own work in order to stay on track, which limits the specialized projects they can take on and could mean less upward mobility and possible loss of their position due to being seen as lazy. See the pattern?
If the person or persons in your office that are responsible for doing the invisible work decides to act their wage or get so burnt out that they begin quiet quitting (which can happen unintentionally), the office will slow or even halt. Any warmness or fondness people still have for functioning in the physical office will dissipate even further. Make no mistake regarding the misnomer of the term, most people know exactly who is responsible for these “jobs.” If that person ceased doing this work, there would be backlash for them in some form. Doing either is simply not a viable option for women who want to keep and/or advance their careers.
Ultimately, the concept of quiet quitting is well intentioned but incomplete. If the goal is to empower people to create life/work balance and insist on a live-able wage and healthy work environment, you have to create a level playing field. We all have to make an effort to take on this invisible work, to acknowledge both verbally and financially the individuals who use their time to support other’s work. That in itself is a privilege. While quiet quitting is currently being lauded as the way to create balance for yourself, you have to ask if there are people in your office that don’t have the luxury of creating that balance. Acknowledging and sharing the invisible work is the first step in creating the more balanced work environment many of us are hoping for.
*Throughout this article, I specify women as the individuals that do invisible work in most organizations. This is because other than personal experience, my assertion is based on a recent article which showed that “In addition to the two hours of unpaid labor women take on at home, research from Harvard Business Review found that women get 44% more requests than men to volunteer for “non-promotable” tasks at work.” I fully acknowledge that this is not always the case and that men as well as individuals that do not identify as women can also be the person(s) that complete this invisible work.