How We Drive The Employee Experience

By Bradley Wilson - January 26, 2021

It feels like the world is burning, and yet people are more engaged at work. Does this make any sense?

Employee engagement metrics fail to capture just how disruptive 2020 was for the majority of the workforce. Engagement is an essential key indicator used by many of Perceptyx's clients. It predicts talent retention and colleague performance through the application of discretionary effort. In 2020, many of our clients recorded higher engagement levels and significantly lower levels of voluntary attrition. What seems like great news on first impression must be considered in the context of the disrupted world of work inside and outside organizations.  

Employee engagement is an outcome of both internal and external factors. Organizations tend to focus on internal factors like resources, recognition, growth, and teamwork that are within the scope of control of leaders and managers. External factors are also important. This became very clear when Perceptyx worked with U.S. health insurance companies in the early days after the Affordable Care Act was enacted. Despite strong company performance and positive work experiences, both engagement and commitment declined, while voluntary attrition rates increased. It was difficult for many employees to anticipate success with their company when they feared the Act might threaten the viability of the industry. Many employees, especially high performers, chose to make a career change while they could do so on their own terms. 

In 2020, we saw the opposite. Employees perceived fewer external opportunities because unemployment rates were high. Plus, quarantines, schools closing, mandatory remote work, social unrest, riots, and murder hornets made the labor market even more unpredictable. The last thing employees wanted to do was voluntarily throw a career change into the mix. This time, the prudent strategy was to hunker down and be thankful for the distraction from the outside world offered by a new reality of back-to-back Zoom calls. 

Many organizations thrived during 2020. Zoom, Peloton, and Amazon experienced dramatic increases in market capitalization. Some companies leveraged the challenges of 2020 to implement difficult but necessary internal change. Leaders responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by increasing communication, demonstrating competency, maintaining consistency, and showing care for their people. These changes enhanced trust between leaders and their employees. As a result, employee commitment has remained strong, even as employees have weathered changes like organizational restructuring and dramatic post-merger integrations.  

So, where is the concern when it comes to employee engagement? Companies had to respond to the pandemic with so little warning that few of them considered the long-term impact that COVID would have on organizational habits and culture. There are few indications that the challenges of 2020 are going away any time soon, even with the roll-out of a COVID vaccine. Employees are starting to look to the future while questioning if their current experience is sustainable. Employees’ expectations are moving past just surviving and considering, to thriving. Every effective engagement strategy relies on the anticipation of success for both the organization and its employees. Many employees temporarily lowered their expectations for success in 2020, but that will not last long. Instead, their focus will soon revert to the four core motivators: achievement (getting things done), affiliation (being a part of something important), affluence (status and reward), and autonomy (flexibility and work/life balance). 

Learn the details behind the research and get recommendations for advancing to the higher response stages with our free report, Business Resilience: The Global COVID-19 Response Study.

 

Employees will again be looking for and expecting opportunities that offer to unlock their potential. People will value organizations that prioritize their desire to maintain healthy habits – physically, mentally, relationally, and financially.They will feel frustrated if their experiences at work do not align with those expectations. As we move into 2021, hoping for a brighter future, many organizations will realize that while their employees survived 2020, they will need additional support to thrive in 2021. 

Where can leaders focus - beyond engagement - to understand and support employees in 2021 and beyond? 

Aligning culture. Organizational culture determines how work gets done. Leaders' values shape culture, dictating what gets recognized and rewarded within a company and how resources are allocated. Values shape culture, and culture determines outcomes. Anything is possible when culture, behaviors, and habits align with the desired results and employees believe the culture is one in which they can thrive. 2021 survey programs will benefit from including questions to understand if the current organizational culture is setting employees -  and the organization - up for success. 

Unlocking potential. Job fit matters in the short term, but unlocking potential goes beyond current abilities and addresses the opportunity for growth and mastery. A focus on unlocking potential is also a critical concept for effective equity, inclusion, and diversity conversations. Empowering people to unlock their potential at work regardless of their backgrounds or personal characteristics is not only engaging, but also fosters an inclusive and diverse work environment.

Discouraging workaholism. In many organizations, 2020 created a new breed of workaholic. With limited opportunities to invest time and energy outside of the house or away from work, work may have come as a welcome distraction and release. Research has shown that inadequate work/life balance leads to burnout and decreased performance. The behavior patterns of workaholics may mirror those of alcoholics. By the time unhealthy workaholic behaviors affect employee job performance, the employee has also damaged many other important relationships. During disruptions, work may feel like the one thing an employee can control, and work can become an excuse to avoid societal or familial pressures. An employee may not define this experience on a survey as a lack of work/life balance because things may seem to be in balance – until they are not. In addition to work/life balance, consider employees' ability to set and maintain boundaries. Organizational network analysis can also help identify healthy or unhealthy behaviors that might be evidence of workaholism. 

Rethinking autonomy. The definition of autonomy traditionally focuses on when and where we work. With many teams set up to work remotely, the new definition of autonomy should also be as much about when and where we disconnect from work. Do employees have a reasonable level of control over their work and how they manage their calendars? If not, this can pose a retention risk when the economy recovers. Remote work will likely remain an option. Workers may seek out those opportunities that provide the greatest control over their time and the flexibility of their schedules. 

As organizations look to optimize the employee experience in 2021, they must continue to track employee engagement. They must also understand employees' lived experience by incorporating measures of organizational culture, and they must focus on unlocking potential and empowering employees. Organizations that maintain up-to-date listening strategies will have the data and insights to see the way forward to a more positive employee experience. 

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