2020 Was a Volatile Year for Employee Engagement. Can Employers Smooth the Bumps in 2021?

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Gallup, which has tracked employee engagement levels since 2000, reports that engagement fluctuated more often — and more widely —  in 2020 than any year on record. And you might be surprised to learn that it wasn’t all bad.

In May, employee engagement hit a record high of 38 percent. It hit another record high of 40 percent in late June. But it also had its downturns, falling to 31 percent in early June — four points below its pre-COVID average.

Now, engagement seems to have stabilized at its pre-COVID levels. That’s good news, but it could be better: After all, pre-COVID engagement levels mean 51 percent of employees are “not engaged,” and 13 percent are “actively disengaged.”

Can employers keep engagement steadier in 2021 — and maybe even move the needle up a bit? We spoke with Dr. Natalie Baumgartner, chief workforce scientist at Achievers, to learn more.

The Employee Experience Is Changing

COVID-19 upended everything, and amidst the chaos, many employees found themselves reconsidering what they want out of their jobs. Overwhelmingly, today’s professionals have lost interest in the flashy perks of yesteryear, like free lunches and in-office massage therapists. Instead, Dr. Baumgartner says, employees are looking at the bigger picture when evaluating their employers.

“In 2021, employees will look for companies with values that align with their own; a place where they feel valued, connected, and heard; and a company that provides benefits employees really need,” Dr. Baumgartner says.

The pandemic-necessitated shift to remote work has exposed employees to a new kind of flexibility and work/life balance, and they really don’t want to give those things up. Dr. Baumgartner cites research from Owl Labs and Global Workplace Analytics, which found that half of employees would quit their jobs if their employers didn’t allow them to continue working remotely once the pandemic had ended.

Many employees now prize flexible and remote work options because of the convenience and autonomy they grant, but that’s not the whole story. It’s also about feeling supported: The pandemic presented us all with challenges the likes of which we had never seen. Workers paid attention to how their employers responded. Did they hold space for employee well-being? Did they do everything they could to help employees stay safe — and even thrive — in a crisis? Or did their employers put profit above people, public health be darned?

Listen to Your People

Going forward, employees will prioritize organizations that prioritize them — and a big part of that is listening to what employees have to say.

“Employees want to know that their concerns and input are valued and taken into consideration when building plans and strategies,” Dr. Baumgartner says. “Understanding employee voice is critical to increasing employee engagement because it allows leaders to make informed decisions based on employee concerns. Without fully understanding employee concerns, it is nearly impossible to put actions in place to help meet their needs.”

Listening to the collective employee voice requires more than just encouraging managers to have more frequent chats with their direct reports, though that is of course a valuable best practice. But as Dr. Baumgartner points out, employees are more honest about their needs and concerns in surveys than they are in conversations with managers. For that reason, Dr. Baumgartner recommends organizations make regular use of survey tools to surface honest employee voices.

Listening is just the first step. Employees also need to see the organization is actually paying attention to their feedback and using it to inform decisions about processes, policies, and strategies.

Cultivating, honoring, and acting on the employee voice can have a demonstrable effect on engagement. Dr. Baumgartner cites research from Achievers that found companies which survey employees more than four times a year have higher engagement levels on average.

“This doesn’t mean that surveying alone can impact engagement rates, but rather that the actions that go with regular pulse check-ins demonstrate to employees that they are heard and valued,” Dr. Baumgartner adds.

Employee recognition serves as an important corollary to soliciting employee voices. Hearing your employees also means using your own voice to laud the good work they’ve done for your company. According to research from Achievers, 90 percent of employees work harder after they’ve received recognition.

“While recognition is a clear motivator for employees, it’s not only manager and senior-level recognition that play a role in engagement,” Dr. Baumgartner says. “Peer-to-peer recognition is an important piece of the puzzle. Receiving acknowledgment of a job well done from someone who is in a similar role and has a deeper understanding of the day-to-day obstacles faced is a powerful engagement tool.”

Keeping Everyone Engaged as Hiring Ramps Back Up

As the pandemic recedes, companies will be in a position to start hiring again, either expanding their workforces or restaffing all the positions they had to cut to weather the economic storm of 2020. And while a more active job market is a good thing, it does complicate engagement efforts a bit. It’s hard enough to keep existing workers engaged, let alone pushing engagement up while the ranks of your staff swell.

The good news, though, is that employee voice is just as important to engaging new hires as it is to engaging your seasoned veterans.

“Understanding employee voice through consistent feedback loops is a key component to engaging new employees,” Dr. Baumgartner says. “For companies with a major hiring push, one consideration is a pulse survey specific to new team members. Creating a baseline understanding of how new employees feel at the start of employment versus how they feel a month or two later, and understanding how they felt about the onboarding process (especially if it’s remote), are key in understanding if the engagement processes in place are successful. ”

As Dr. Baumgartner points out, new hires should, ideally, be people who align with the company’s culture and values already. If the company continues to cultivate employee voice — and use that voice to inform its decisions — engaging new and established employees alike shouldn’t be all that difficult. (At least, no more difficult than normal.)

“Making company decisions based on employee values and culture alignment is key to keeping both long-term and new employees engaged,” Dr. Baumgartner says. “Therefore, when making decisions around new benefits, recognition programs, or feedback systems, the outcomes would map back to values employees can relate to, increasing a sense of belonging and making the employees feel heard, thus increasing engagement.”

By Matthew Kosinski