“Quick, look busy. Someone is watching!” Remember the productivity theater trend in 2023 when employees pretended to be busy at work—instead of being busy—to protect themselves against surveillance? In May, 2023, I spoke with Dr. Andrea Derler, Principal of research and value at Visier, about that trend. She told me, “Due to the current economic environment and growing pressure from employers to cut costs without sacrificing productivity, employees are at risk of becoming overburdened and under pressure.”
At the time, Derler said employees wanted to demonstrate they were working and being productive. So they engaged in work tasks that had little strategic value but were more visible to others—such as emailing or messaging their coworkers as quickly as possible, even when unnecessary. Other staff went to nonessential meetings or kept their laptop screens awake when not actively working—all in an effort to appear to be productive. “In the end,” she noted, “an employer’s hyper surveillance with making sure their employees are working might just lead to the exact opposite result.” Turns out she was right. Last year, many desperate employees were reduced to a series of cat-and-mouse trends to stay under employer radar—coping mechanisms that eventually led to “change fatigue.”
2023 Turbulent Cat-And-Mouse Trends
In 2023, employees spent a lot of time and energy using rogue tactics to hide out from the fear of being singled-out, micro-managed or judged by management. When you peek under the radar, “coffee badging” was trending in which employees showed up at the office for enough time to have a cup of coffee and earn an imaginary badge for it, then went home to do their work. It was a workaround to continue remote work after companies issued return-to-office (RTO) mandates. Or what about the “quiet ambition” trend in which workers quietly redirected their ambition into their personal lives instead of blindly climbing the corporate ladder—refusing to chase achievement for achievement’s sake—as their predecessors had done? Then there were the other under-the-radar trends such as “lazy girl jobs” or “quiet quitters,” who put in a minimal amount of effort, making up 50% of the U.S. workforce, according to Gallup.
As company demands continue to grow in 2024, a recent report finds that remote worker’s careers may be on the chopping block, because upper honchos find it easier to lay off remote staff, who are out-of-sight, out-of-mind, compared to in-office workers. As a result of these demands, another rogue trend emerged to protect remote workers: “shadow policies”—decisions by managers that allow employees to work remotely even when the company’s official policy requires them to be in the office. Just imagine all the time, engagement and productivity that was wasted in 2023, just so employees could cope with the ups-and-downs in the workplace.
The Emergence Of ‘Change Fatigue’ in 2024
It might not surprise you that the turbulent cat-and-mouse trends between employers and employees in 2023 created more anxiety for the American workforce than in previous years, according to a new survey. After polling 1,000 full-time U.S. employees at the end of 2023, Visier concluded that last year was marked with workplace upheaval and uncertainty. The report discovered a majority of worn-out workers from “change fatigue,” brought on by frequent shifting of priorities, policies and personnel over the course of the year. Employees reported that the turbulence left the toll of feeling stressed, anxious, burned out and distrusting of their employers. The consequences of these mental health challenges showed up through a drop in motivation and job satisfaction and with 72% of workers actively looking for a new job or open to one. The top three disruptive changes cited in the study were:
1- Leadership changes/executive turnover
2- Reduction in workforce/Layoffs
3- Return-to-office mandates.
I spoke with Andrea Derler at Visier by email again in 2024. “This past year was incredibly turbulent for the workplace, and with constant layoffs and global economic uncertainty, it comes as no surprise that employees are feeling extra anxious and uncertain about 2024,” she told me. “Employees across the country were faced with leadership changes, reductions in workforce, return to office policies, and other disruptive challenges that have made it more difficult for them to trust their employers.”
Other key findings from the report show that these disruptions, in turn, led to several employee mental health issues.
- Negative impact. Too many company shifts in priorities, policies and personnel in 2023 negatively impacted employees. Two-thirds of respondents said they were negatively impacted by company changes, particularly by changes to flexible work hours, remote and hybrid work policies, and paid time off policies.
- Pessimistic outlook. Employees aren’t optimistic that the year ahead will bring any more stability: 75% of respondents anticipate some sort of policy/initiative change in 2024.
- Increased anxiety. A total of 71% of employees were more anxious in 2023 than they were the previous year. Younger generations were more likely to be more anxious this year: 83% of millennials and 76% of Gen Z agreed that they were more anxious at work in 2023 than they were in 2022. On the other hand, only 65% of Gen X agreed and 55% of baby boomers said they were more anxious in 2023.
Because of so many changes, Derler recommends that organizations need to make employee experience a top priority this year in order to ensure worker satisfaction and retention. “Changes like these are inevitable, but business leaders need to be as transparent as possible about any changes and challenges in an organization in order to prevent losing their employees’ trust,” she states. “Whether it’s creating a space for employees to share their thoughts and experiences or sending company-wide updates as needed, it is crucial that organizations are engaging with their employees and taking into consideration their feedback.”