Reimagining the Corporate Work Experience: 3 Employee Engagement Trends to Watch for in 2021

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employee motivation

Inarguably, 2020 has been a year of reckoning for corporate America. The compounded impact of COVID-19, political divides, social unrest, and constant economic uncertainty has forced company leaders to take a hard look at their priorities, people, and policies. As a result, the corporate landscape has shifted irrevocably. In particular, three employee engagement trends are beginning to reshape the way we’ll think about work in 2021 and beyond.

While these trends may not sound new, it is the level of attention — and intention — with which they are addressed that can fundamentally change the way we interact in the workplace. Companies that dig deeper, elevate the level of conversation, and address the deeply human issues that lie underneath each of these trends will engage the hearts and minds of their people. As a result, these will be the companies that lead us forward into the next decade.

1. Addressing the Whole Person at Work

As the shift to remote work brought the walls between office and home life tumbling down, we are now getting glimpses into every aspect of our employees’ lives, from their families and pets to their backyards and bedrooms. Smart leaders are taking extra time to build connections around these personal elements so they can get to know their employees on a deeper level. As a result, these leaders are getting a better understanding of the stress we are all under, which is at once deeply personal and highly communal.

Leaders are drawing connections across the organization so they can help their people address issues like time management, prioritization, and self-care in order to avoid burnout. They are also implementing more whole-health wellness benefits, child- and eldercare solutions, and more flexible vacation policies. Such increased attention to and support for employees will play a key role in maintaining employee engagement going forward.

2. Making Deeper Connections Between Personal and Institutional Purposes

The tragedies of 2020 have us all thinking about purpose and direction, regardless of our current roles. Even a well-established company with a clear purpose and a well-articulated ethos could benefit from revisiting these things in light of our current circumstances.

The first step is communicating both a purpose statement and the detailed why and how that lie behind that statement. Then, train everyone in the organization to speak about company purpose with a unified voice. If they haven’t done so already, leadership teams will need to take a hard look at how their institutional purposes have withstood the multiple tests of 2020. Can that purpose be translated in a meaningful way to help people thrive in our next normal?

Companies must also ensure managers know how to coach employees to link their individual purposes and day-to-day work with the company’s overall purpose and goals. Managers must recalibrate the development paths available to people so that employees can see futures for themselves at the company, despite ongoing uncertainty.

The prospect of long-term remote work can add to the complexity here. As organizations adopt longer-term hybrid work models, wherein at least some employees work from home some of the time, companies must make it a point to provide equitable opportunities for advancement and visibility to all employees, regardless of where people sit. Leaders will need to create opportunities for learning, mentoring, and collaboration. They must optimize key moments that help integrate employees into the community, like one-on-one check-ins, social opportunities, and career-coaching conversations.

All of this will require more focused, ongoing communication efforts cascading from the boardroom, through executives and function leaders, to managers and employees, and back up the chain again.

3. Moving Beyond Diversity and Inclusion to Equity, Justice, and Belonging

Many companies have already ditched the acronym “D&I” and are moving toward more precise terms, like “DEI” (diversity, equity, and inclusion); “DEB” (diversity, equity, and belonging); and “JEDI” (justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion). It is these concepts of justice and belonging that reveal the greatest shift in corporate diversity initiatives.

Sophisticated companies are still doing the traditional D&I work on the C-suite level, but they are also digging deeper, having difficult conversations with their people, and re-examining institutional biases to move the needle in terms of both building a more diverse workforce and fostering the emotions and experiences that bond employees together with one another and to the company for which they work. As controversial as the response has been, the NFL is one highly visible example of this activity. The organization has been attempting to correct past mistakes and make meaningful progress with players, clubs, fans, and the media.

Progress on racial justice has been slow over the course of our nation’s history, but corporate diversity initiatives got a big boost in attention this summer, and leaders are feeling the pressure to move faster toward true equity and belonging. Check-the-box activities like state-mandated diversity training will no longer suffice. Race, once considered a taboo subject in the workplace, is now center stage as companies encourage dialogue, reassess policies, and address long-standing injustices. There is widespread recognition that this work will take time, but in 2021 and beyond, we can expect to see increased demands for tangible progress in our workplaces and our society.

Recently, a colleague joked to me that “everything about 2020 has been ‘unprecedented.’ I can’t wait until things are ‘precedented’ again.” Truthfully, the trends described here do have precedent. Companies have been grappling with how to help employees integrate work and life, how to build purpose and community, and how to address diversity issues in the workplace for decades. It is merely the intensity of these issues and the speed with which companies need to address them that have changed.

In 2021 and beyond, we have an opportunity to reimagine what the corporate work experience will feel like. With any luck, it will feature an unprecedented level of care, attention, humanity, and connection. Let’s get to work.

Tammy Kleinman is a senior consultant with Notion Consulting.

By Tammy Kleinman