Workplace Déjà Vu: What Does It Mean?

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Ever had déjà vu?

Didn’t I just say that?

It’s happened to all of us at least once or twice, that feeling that we’ve been somewhere or seen something before when we haven’t. The name itself is French for “already seen”. Scientists have a few working theories, but no definitive explanation for it. Our brain simply confuses the present with the past, even if only for a fraction of a second. Then, even though we’re gazing upon something for the first time, we mistakenly believe that we’ve seen it before (been there, done that, got the t-shirt...only not really). Cue spooky feeling of déjà vu.

Another possibility is that there is a split-second delay in transferring information from one side of the brain to the other. We see or do something, the left side registers a few microseconds faster than the right, so when it does “catch up”, we believe we’ve already seen or done it. Cue spooky feeling of déjà vu.

Truthfully, we just don’t know.

It can happen anytime, anywhere. At home. On vacation. At school. And yes, even at work.

But workplace déjà vu can be divided into two distinct groups, one a more traditional type, and the other a more recent and much less mysterious phenomenon.

You may have experienced run-of-the-mill déjà vu (how’s that for an oxymoron?!) at your job when you first started working there. The office layout, or a new colleague, may have seemed familiar to you. But that’s not what we’re talking about here.

So what, then, is workplace déjà vu? Read on.

Category One: More of the Same

Businesses are notorious for their rapid rate of policy and initiative changes. Some places are worse offenders than others but stay long enough at one company or job, and you will see changes.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, right? A business needs to adjust, adapt, and evolve with its industry and client base. What worked 5 years ago, or even last year, might not work today. Just look at marketing, for example. Now, it’s all about social media, viral content, and email lists. But none of that existed as little as 15 years ago. Businesses have had to implement those strategies in order to keep up with the times.

So change is necessary to compete. It’s crucial for growth, and getting your message, product, or service out there and in front of your potential customers. It’s good.

But what about those dumb, irritating changes that don’t seem to do anything? Changes for the sake of changes. Unfortunately, you’re probably familiar with them already (wait...isn’t that déjà vu?).

These are the “new” initiatives that seem suspiciously like the old ones. Nothing new, just different paperwork, different steps in the process, more time lost to “training” for the new-but-not-new systems, and so forth.

If you’ve ever taught before, for example, you know what I’m talking about. School boards are infamous for this type of workplace déjà vu.

  • New curriculum that is almost identical to the old one.
  • New educational philosophy that says the exact same thing, but in slightly different words.
  • New procedures for discipline, professional development, or virtually anything that requires training time to bring everyone up-to-speed...even though it’s basically the same as the old method.

This type of workplace déjà vu results in lost hours, lower productivity, employee confusion (it’s hard to keep track of all the changes, and even more so when everything is so damn similar), and lower office morale (no one wants to learn or invest time in something when they know it will likely be gone by next year, or even next month).

I once worked at a school that changed its guiding principles every year...and each year the staff had to devote days to learning the new system, procedures, and initiatives, only to have to do it all over again starting in September. That’s a lot of time that could have been better used to plan lessons and work with the kids. Everything was different, but the same.

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Changes that are drastic, but reflect a fluid industry or trend in the marketplace, are good. They’re part of surviving in business.

Changes that aren’t really changes serve no purpose and should be avoided at all cost.  

Category Two: Boomerang Employees

If category one is to be avoided, then category two might just be something to actively pursue (or happily accept at any rate).

Category two workplace déjà vu refers to the increasing frequency of boomerang employees.

The Bureau of U.S. Labor Statistics conducted a study using data collected for the years between 1978 and 2008. They found that the average American, for example, will hold 11 jobs over their working lifetime. Millennials, though, can expect to hold 15-20, as they tend to stay at each position for a smaller period of time.

That’s a lot of coming and going, and a high turnover rate for businesses. High turnover costs money and time: companies must advertise a position, interview and vet candidates, and train new employees. It’s obviously much cheaper to keep your existing employees than to find and train new ones.

The second best option? Boomerang employees. Workers that leave, but eventually come back.

We leave jobs for a variety of reasons: life event, relocation, boredom, bad boss, a better offer, and so on. Sometimes the switch works out, and sometimes it doesn’t. As the saying goes, “the grass is always greener on the other side”. Unless it isn’t.

More and more employees are leaving a position or company, starting somewhere new (or trying their hand at entrepreneurship), and discovering that things weren’t so bad with their original employer.

And whereas many businesses had an explicit policy against hiring former employees in the past, that’s no longer the case. A survey by and the Workforce Institute at Kronos found that 76% of HR managers are willing to consider boomerang employees today.

And why would they consider hiring back these disloyal people? Well, for a number of reasons, but mainly because boomerang employees bring the following benefits.

  • Have an existing relationship with not only other employees in the company but also existing clients and customers.
  • Are already familiar with the company, making the necessity for costly (both hours and money) training much lower, if not completely unnecessary (it would depend, of course, on how long the employee has been out of the corporate loop).
  • Are already familiar with the industry.
  • May have gained additional skills and experience since leaving.
  • Are already aware of the corporate culture, policies, and beliefs of the business.

Boomerang employees may actually be the ideal employee. The amount of training and onboarding is virtually nil.  

And about 86% of the HR managers in the Workplace Trends survey said they had received applications from former employees, so the employees themselves aren’t against the idea, either.

Lots of boomerang employees create workplace déjà vu...but in a good way. You look around the office and see one employee who was gone for five years, but is back again, and another who left 2 years ago to return to school, but came back better than ever. It’s different, but the same.

What can you do? Leave your job on good terms, and keep in touch. You never know when you might want to come back. The days of quitting and burning bridges are long past. It’s in both your best interests to maintain a good relationship with your former employers.

See Also: How to Quit Your Job Gracefully

Category one of workplace déjà vu is a waste of everyone’s time. Lots of the same, but requiring time and money to implement the change. Why bother?

Category two is quickly becoming not only commonplace but desirable. Boomerang employees are a group on the upswing, and everyone seems to be okay with that.

We may not know exactly what it is, but déjà vu is everywhere. And you are more likely to encounter it at work now than ever before.

What about you? Would you ever consider returning to a company you previously left? What’s the worst example of more-of-the-same “changes” at your job? Leave your thoughts in the comments below...

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