What’s Changed When it Comes to Employee Engagement Pre- COVID-19 vs. Today?
By John Estudillo - April 08, 2021
In order to have a high-performing workforce, it's essential that leaders identify and understand the factors that both create and sustain high levels of employee engagement. But given the tremendous disruptions of the past year, what are the key drivers of employee engagement today, and how have these drivers changed when compared to the pre-COVID workplace environment?
While drivers of engagement vary across organizations and industries, they tend to be more similar than most realize. This has held true even during the pandemic. In this blog, we’ll spotlight common themes across organizations pre- and post-pandemic, and help leaders understand what’s influencing employee sentiment and behavior across the workforce.
Top Employee Engagement Drivers Now
Most organizations that continued to survey throughout COVID-19 actually saw an increase in engagement; however, those scores are starting to decline and realign to pre-pandemic levels (see Figure 1 below). This is likely due to a variety of factors including burnout and acceptance or normalization of the circumstances to which we have adapted; uncertainty of how the virus will continue to impact the workforce in the future; or simply virtual work/meeting fatigue. This stabilizing of engagement comes as the excitement of leadership coming together to solve new problems in efficient ways is either becoming normal or happening less often.
Drivers of engagement throughout the past year are actually quite similar to what they were prior to the pandemic. Perceptyx analyzed the top 59 drivers of engagement from our benchmark database, across all clients globally, to identify and understand any shifts pre- and post-pandemic. We found that 6 of the top 10 drivers of engagement from 2019 are still in the top 10 post-pandemic. Even though most survey scores increased for a time during the pandemic, and the work environment has looked more different than ever before, the four leading factors influencing employee engagement across industries have been largely unaffected:
- Feeling valued & recognized
- Growth & development opportunities
- Change management & clarity of direction
- Concern for well-being
While the topics driving engagement haven’t changed much, it’s safe to assume the way employees experience and think about some of these areas has changed since the start of COVID-19. It’s important to understand these shifts, particularly from a change management perspective. Let’s explore the types of questions that lie under the surface of each of these themes to better grasp the full employee experience. These question types and sub-themes will likely look familiar to many leaders, as they have been the focus of many prior action plans.
1. Feeling Valued & Recognized
Employees need to feel important and valued both at work and outside of work. Feeling valued is one of the most common and consistent drivers of engagement we see across organizations and industries pre-pandemic. Therefore, it’s not surprising that this continues to be a top driver of engagement today. According to the same Perceptyx analysis referenced earlier, the item, “I feel valued as an employee of the company,” was the #1 driver of engagement across Perceptyx clients in 2019 and is still #1 post-pandemic. Additionally, the item, “when I do an excellent job, my accomplishments are recognized,” was a top 10 driver of engagement in 2019 and continues to rank highly post-pandemic.
The isolation and social disconnection that many people have experienced during the pandemic has likely led to a heightened desire to feel valued. Naturally, an in-person “thank you” or “keep up the good work” aren’t quite as organic or common in a virtual setting.
Below are some drivers that prompt employees to feel valued:
- Recognition for quality work
- Encouragement to provide meaningful feedback that is acted upon
- Contributions linked to the company’s success
- Opportunities for career advancement
2. Growth & Development Opportunities
Another consistent driver of engagement throughout the pandemic was the desire for growth and development. From the internal drivers analysis, Perceptyx found the items, “there are career opportunities for me at the company,” and “my current responsibilities are positioning me for further success within the company,” were both top 10 drivers of engagement in 2019 and post-pandemic.
Regardless of external factors, employees expressed a desire to learn and grow professionally, either vertically or within their current role. Of course, the financial health of organizations has varied greatly over the past year and typical advancement opportunities may have been put on hold or limited in some fashion. In fact, 31% of employed individuals surveyed in a Perceptyx panel research study of 1,000 people across the U.S., said their opportunities for growth and development during the pandemic decreased. Nonetheless, most people are still determined to continuously improve and grow in an effort to gain more control of their professional destiny. To support this, Perceptyx found that the item, “I am given the opportunity to improve my skills at the company,” was a top 15 driver of engagement across Perceptyx clients, pre- and post-pandemic.
Employees feel supported in their growth and development if they perceive the following conditions are present:
- An appropriate level of involvement in decision making and overall empowerment within their role
- Clearly communicated expectations from leaders and an open environment to discuss such expectations
- Communication of new career opportunities and a fair/equal chance at the opportunities
- Challenging and fulfilling tasks and responsibilities that will position them for future success
3. Change Management & Clarity of Direction
Perception of the future and employee listening were common drivers of engagement prior to the pandemic, but the context of these topics — and the way employees think about them — have changed slightly in the past year. This shift is likely due to the fact that so many significant changes have taken place for a majority of workplaces over the past year, and most of those changes have been communicated virtually.
In the midst of such drastic change, employees long for their voice to be heard, to understand how their role may transform, how their work now affects other departments and the company at large, and the future outlook of the company in general. Implementing change in an effective way, with the support of employees, and communicating a clear sense of direction can be quite challenging.
Perceptyx discovered, from the internal drivers analysis, that the items, “I believe feedback from this survey will be used to make improvements,” and “sufficient effort is made to get the opinions and thinking of people who work here,” were top 10 drivers of engagement pre- and post-pandemic. And the items, “I feel optimistic about the future of the company,” and “senior management communicates a clear vision for the future,” were top 15 drivers of engagement pre- and post-pandemic.
Employees are more inclined to think positively about the future if they see:
- Timely decisions and clear communication surrounding these decisions
- Effective interdepartmental transparency and cooperation
- New and innovative ideas being encouraged and acted upon
- A clear link between their work and company/department objectives
- Senior leadership clearly communicating the current health and future direction of the organization
4. Concern for Well-being
Work environments, responsibilities, workloads, job security, and expectations have significantly changed within the last year. From the same panel research mentioned earlier, Perceptyx found that 41.3% of the U.S. employed individuals surveyed have acquired more job responsibilities during the pandemic. As a result, we’re starting to see concern for employees’ well-being become a more prominent driver of engagement than in the past. Some employees are feeling burned out due to an increased workload, the need to juggle personal and family needs during the day, general concern of COVID-19, the uncertainty of job security, or a combination of these. As a result, employees want their organization to display genuine concern for their overall well-being, both personally and professionally.
A few common drivers of employee well-being are:
- Having adequate resources and personnel to carry out one’s work
- Seeing leaders modeling, supporting, and communicating the importance of disconnecting from work
- Feeling that managers listen to direct reports’ individual needs and show concern for them as a person
Move Forward by Practicing Comprehensive Listening
During this time, when workplace environments and attitudes continue to change rapidly, it’s important to adopt a comprehensive listening strategy to understand your employees’ current concerns and monitor changes in sentiment over time. A biannual or annual census/engagement survey is a vital aspect of this strategy, but opportunities for shorter, more targeted listening exercises, such as Pulse surveys, can also help to gauge specific employee feedback or identify new employee needs as workforce dynamics change.
Contact us to discover how our unique blend of deep domain expertise, above and beyond client service, and superior technology can help your organization understand and accelerate the unique drivers of employee engagement.