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Insights Discussion: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow: Reviewing 2020 and Looking Forward to 2021 [RECAP]

2020 has tested us all personally and professionally. The same is true for our organizations. Three experts from the Perceptyx Consulting and People Analytics teams, Dr. Sarah Johnson, Vice President of Enterprise Surveys and Analytics, Dr. Brittany Head, Senior Consultant, and Emily Killham, Client Data Researcher, provided a concluding webcast within our Insights & Research Discussion series that shed light on what 2020 has taught us, as well as what leaders need to keep top of mind as we move forward into the new year. These insights are based on what Perceptyx has learned through its research since COVID-19 began, working with hundreds of large, global organizations to survey more than 750,000 employees about their specific work situations and how they and their organizations are addressing business challenges. These data make clear that when the business context is uncharted, as it is today, leaders cannot rely on past experiences and data to see the way forward. Too much has changed, and the entire operating model for human resources has had to evolve seemingly overnight.

2020 Hindsight: A Year to Forget Learn From

Indeed, 2020 was a turbulent, rollercoaster year: The COVID-19 pandemic, a changing workforce, and various social and political challenges. In a short few weeks, organizations went from more than 75% of employees in the physical workforce to more than 75% of employees working remotely. Only 1 in 20 employees reported no change to their work since the pandemic swept the world. According to Brittany, “Everything was taken off of autopilot in 2020,” with organizations, leaders, and employees having to reimagine the rules of where you work, how the work gets done safely, who you work with, and even the existential question of why you work. 2020 was HR’s time to rise to the occasion.

Diving into the Perceptyx client database, we found the employee engagement benchmark was relatively stable from 2017–2019. Employees initially rallied together and engagement scores increased in the March–August 2020, in the beginning of the pandemic. In particular, Pride in Company in the already top-percentile organizations improved dramatically in May and June, and Referral behavior and Intent to Stay increased in August for these same organizations. However, moving into the fall and now winter, declines across all engagement areas began to emerge, especially for Intrinsic Motivation. With few predicting we would be where we are at today, fatigue has certainly set in after a long 2020.

Figure 1. The Story of a Pandemic Engagement "Bubble" and return to "normal"
Pandemic Engagement Bubble and Return to Normal-1

Brittany then covered what mattered most in 2020 in terms of trends and lessons: Doing the right things continue to matter in building and sustaining healthy organizations - communication, and in particular acting on employee feedback, resulted in much larger gains in engagement and business outcomes during the turbulence of 2020. In addition, resilience has been the buzzword of 2020, but it is important to note although we are in the same “storm,” we are not all in the same boat - as some groups in particular have been hit harder than others (i.e., women, minority, and younger employees), resulting in the whole-person pandemic requiring a great deal of empathy, in particular from managers.

Working and Learning in the Now

Emily shared that now is the optimal time to ask questions and respond to employees, and posed, “Since we are here, now what?” In terms of employee well-being, fully engaged employees missed one less day per month due to stress and/or illness than their less engaged counterparts.

Figure 2. Engaged Employees Miss Less Work Due to Illness and Stress
Engaged Employees Miss Less Work Due to Illness and Stress (1)

For employees who stated stress at work is unmanageable, nearly 1 in 4 reported difficulty sleeping 3 or more days in the last week, and 17% engaged in unhealthy behaviors (e.g., binge drinking, overeating) 3 or more days in the last week. Currently, drivers of employee engagement and well-being include:

  • Having the tools and support to manage workplace stress effectively.
  • Manager support to make personal decisions about health and well-being.
  • Reasonable pace of work and expectations.
  • Organization helps deal with stress and burnout.
  • When there is a mistake, one’s team works together to fix it
  • A psychologically and emotionally healthy place to work
  • There is cooperation between departments
  • Work flexibility in work hours to meet personal commitments.

Across Perceptyx research, it is clear that solving for employee well-being and burnout is not addressed at the individual level; instead, resilience is built with manager, team, and organizational support and relationships. As Emily said, “Healthy teams create healthy employees.” Indeed, the concept of employee engagement is a health and well-being issue. Employees spend more than one-third of their lives at work, so it is no surprise that a healthy workplace makes for a healthy human (not just employee). It is crucial that organizations focus on building resilience not only during turbulent times, but at all, “normal” times to be prepared for disruption.

2021: Four Focus Points for Success

Sarah wrapped up the discussion with a look towards the future. In particular, how HR needs to continue to evolve and rethink its journey, with a recognition that we cannot be unchanged by the experience of 2020 - we will never go back to “normal,” as there has really never been a normal, and another disruption is always looming just around the corner. As leaders embark into 2021, Sarah recommends a reflection and focus on the following areas so that employees and organizations remain resilient, adaptive, and agile going forward:

  1. Fatigue. Employees are taking less vacation and working longer hours. Whereas engagement initially climbed, we are seeing the crash leading to feelings of “dedicated exhaustion.” Working from home has now turned to living at work, with unclear boundaries and expectations. As Sarah noted, “The bloom is off the rose...the novelty of working remotely has worn off.” Zoom meetings, wearing a mask, social isolation, remote learning - all of these have taken a toll on employees. Continuing to listen and respond to your employees is critical to overcoming this fatigue barrier.

  2. Enabling Women. Organizations must make the active choice to do even more to help women be successful. We have to stop talking about women “choosing” to leave the workplace, as many felt there was no alternative. Companies have made so much progress in the last 10 years of moving women into the workforce and into senior leadership positions, and every company risks moving backwards if they do not respond. The answer is not more “programs,” but rather providing more degrees of freedom that will enable women to sort out their schedules and priorities in the moment that works for them.

  3. The Real Costs/Benefits of Remote Work. In 2020, many employees were recruited, hired, and on-boarded virtually, never meeting a manager or team in-person. This raises challenges to retain young, high-performing, high potential employees, where our research hints at their fears of being unseen and forgotten in the new remote workplace. Making sure those new employees feel welcomed and invested in their teams is critical. All employees, both new and current, need ways to build and maintain ties with co-workers, in order to continue to innovate and collaborate with a shared sense of purpose.

  4. Rethinking Employee Experience. While engagement will continue to be a marker of company success into the future, right now it simply isn’t enough. Companies cannot rely on outcome measures alone; they must listen in the moment and respond quickly. Rethink your employee listening questions - onboarding, census, exit, etc. - and focus on the right, actionable questions that will build experiences that drive success for employees and the organization. For example, research demonstrates that early career experiences (e.g., contributing on a valuable project) greatly influences subsequent productivity/performance and intention to stay. Is your new hire survey measuring this, identifying the barriers that are getting in the way? As the world of work has changed dramatically, the questions you ask and the real-time feedback help not only inform strategy and policy, but also help map the new workplace experience of the future.

2020 has caused major disruption to all aspects of our lives in the short-term, and is likely to continue to change our lives into 2021 and beyond. Leading the way into 2021 requires leaning in to hear what employees need, then putting actions into place that will drive the organization forward. Now is a critical time to listen, the most important time to act, and Perceptyx is here to help you see the way forward.

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