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What is chaotic working – and 7 things you can do about it

'Chaotic working' is #1 in the list of biggest workplace buzzwords of 2023. Why? What is it? We go into detail on the definition and reasons, and what you can do about it as an employer. Hint: It's an indication that you may need to do something different in managing your people.

In 2023, the term ‘chaotic working’ emerged as the No. 1 trend in the US workforce according to a survey by USDictionary.com of 1,000 employees to determine which of these emergent phrases best encapsulates 2023 for the American workforce.

What is chaotic working?

Chaotic working is a term that has gained prominence recently, reflecting a particular behavior in the workplace. It describes a situation where employees, often feeling disaffected or overburdened by their work conditions, engage in acts of generosity or leniency towards customers or clients, sometimes at a small cost to the company.

@speechprof

For legal reasons, I’m not saying you should do this, I’m simply sharing something I saw posted online. #quietquitting

♬ original sound – The Speech Prof

This behavior is a form of passive-aggressive protest against the workplace environment, where employees feel overworked or subjected to excessive quotas. If you’ve heard the term before, you may have heard it as a descriptor of literal chaos in the workplace where employees are scrambling to meet quotas or deliver on expectations – but now, it’s evolved to mean acts of generosity.

This can be seen as a way for employees to express their dissatisfaction with their work situation. It’s a form of rebellion against the company, but instead of direct confrontation or quiet quitting, it manifests as excessive generosity towards customers. In other words, it’s a passive aggressive response.

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Why is chaotic working a big thing?

The rise of chaotic working is due to numerous factors. One major driver is the changing perception of work-life balance and the role of work in personal identity.

Today’s workers are seeking meaningful and fulfilling work experiences – and as a result, they’re increasingly intolerant of working environments that they see as oppressive, overly demanding, or misaligned with their own personal values and ethics.

Online griping

There’s also social media. Platforms like LinkedIn, Reddit, and TikTok have become soapboxes for employees to air their grievances.

For example, Reddit has the “Antiwork” and “Malicious Compliance” subreddit categories, both of which have millions of followers. These, among other social media forums, have fueled a collective consciousness about worker rights and empowerment, driving trends up to and including chaotic working.

A challenge to authority

Additionally, societal shifts in attitudes towards authority and corporate structures have emboldened employees to take matters into their own hands, often leading to actions that align with chaotic working.

There’s a growing sentiment, especially among younger workers, to challenge traditional hierarchies and question the status quo. This isn’t just a rebellion against specific workplaces but a broader commentary on today’s economic systems and corporate practices.

Examples of chaotic working

So, what are some good examples of chaotic working? We can pull up three right now – albeit fictional, they’re still great cultural representations of this trend.

1. The Office – Jim Halpert

In the American version of “The Office,” Jim Halpert, a salesman at the Dunder Mifflin paper company, uses his interactions with customers as a way to navigate and occasionally push back against the company’s rigid corporate policies.

Sure, Jim’s more known for his pranks and humorous approach to the absurdities of his office, but he also goes beyond protocol – and bends company rules – to keep customers happy. It’s not just sales; it’s a subtle form of rebellion against the often nonsensical expectations of his workplace.

2. House M.D. – Dr. Gregory House

In the medical drama series “House M.D.,” Dr. Gregory House, a grumpy maverick doctor, is often rankled at the norms of medical practice and the bureaucratic processes of his hospital. He’ll often bypass standard medical protocol and disregard hospital rules in pursuit of accurate diagnoses and effective treatments for patients with complex and baffling conditions.

He’s skeptical about the “way things are always done”, and he’ll gladly rebel for the benefit of his patients even if it means going head to head with authority and risking his career.

Sure, ultimately, you can say that he believes in doing good for his patients and circumventing the BS that gets in the way – but he’s clearly motivated by his frustration with the system as well.

3. Parks and Recreation – April Ludgate

In the TV show “Parks and Recreation,” April Ludgate, portrayed by Aubrey Plaza, works in the Parks Department in a fictional town. She’s absolutely known for her deadpan, sarcastic, and apathetic approach to her job – and yes, passively aggressively rebels against the bureaucratic and mundane elements of her workplace.

And you know what? She sometimes surprises her colleagues and the town’s citizens with unexpected good deeds – although they are still laced with her deliberately acerbic approach and the bending and breaking of departmental rules and procedures.

One might say she does it all for personal amusement to make her mind-numbing day-to-day work more bearable.

So what can employers do about it?

OK. So you do have folks like Jim, Dr. House, and April in your workplace and while you can appreciate that they’re helping their customers (which is kind of the passive-aggressive point of chaotic working), you still need to button this stuff up. It’s not healthy and it’s not sustainable for your company.

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To fix it, you’ll need to implement proactive strategies that focus on well-being and satisfaction among your employees. It’s not as complicated as you might think – here are eight tips to help you weed out chaotic working in your company:

1. Open up the comm channels

Establish open and transparent channels for communication. Encourage regular feedback windows where employees can voice their concerns and suggestions without fear of repercussions.

You can do this via team meetings, anonymous feedback surveys, or one-on-one sessions with managers.

2. Recognize and reward accomplishments

A pat on the back for a job well done is fine – but a formal recognition program to celebrate employees for their work and achievements is crucial.

These can range from formal award systems to public acknowledgements – and tangible rewards for meeting stated goals.

3. Promote work-life balance and integration

The blurring of the boundary between work and home means it’s even more important now to support your colleagues in balancing out their home and work commitments.

This can include clearly outlined flexible and remote work policies and overt financial support for new parents and fresh graduates. Also, regularly consult with colleagues and be observant of any situations where overwork and burnout may be on the horizon.

4. Invest in learning & development

It costs far more to fill a talent gap with a new hire than it does to develop your existing employees so they’re more than capable of doing that themselves.

Support the professional growth and skills development of your teams with established L&D policies that can include training programs, workshops, mentorship opportunities, career development plans, and so on.

Related: 5 recruitment and retention strategies that actually work

5. Ensure an inclusive and supportive culture

Yes, DEI factors into all this. Build a workplace environment that values diversity, equity, inclusivity and belonging – and shows it in an actual DEI action plan, not just words.

Encourage an appropriately diverse workforce that reflects the overall society demographics, plan team-building activities, establish mentorship programs, and ensure real equity in salary.

6. Prioritize workplace mental health and well-being

You don’t want your company to suffer from organizational trauma. Provide resources and support for mental health, including counseling services and wellness programs in your benefits package as well as no-questions-asked mental health days.

And as above, ensure open channels of communication and keep an eye out for burnout and malaise.

7. Lead by example

Finally, managers and executives must lead by example. Want a positive work culture? Espouse that in your own management practices by striking a positive tone and supporting your colleagues during meetings and interactions.

Be a bastion of inclusive leadership. Be empathetic and deliberate when checking in with your teams, and practice what you preach. Also, make it clear that the proverbial door is always open should anyone need to approach you about anything – and we mean anything.

By implementing these action items and more, you can create a more engaging and satisfying workplace, reducing the likelihood of chaotic working and improving overall productivity and employee morale.

A symptom of something bigger

Chaotic working is a fun new inclusion alongside quiet quitting, coffee badging, and career cushioning in anyone’s list of new workplace terminologies, but it’s serious business.

It’s a symptom of something and a red flag that calls for immediate attention. It underscores the importance of understanding employee needs and perspectives and ensuring a healthier, more productive working environment.

In other words, it means being more human as an employer. You’re all in this together – as such, the well-being and aspirations of your employees go hand in hand with that of your actual company. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.

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