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The Top 3 Employee Engagement Trends for 2021

As the U.S. and the rest of the world gradually returns to a more normal state in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, much of the buzz in HR circles centers on employee engagement trends for 2021 and beyond.

While the unprecedented disruption of the pandemic highlighted many issues related to equity, it also challenged the incorrect assumptions many managers had about remote work and productivity. The three most important recent trends in employee engagement relate to lessons we’ve learned from the pandemic and are the focus of this article.

The 3 Most Important Employee Engagement Trends

There are a number of sub-trends related to employee benefits, development, and other aspects of the work experience that impact engagement, but the three listed here are of primary importance in any overview of the latest trends in employee engagement. That’s because these trends have the most potential for impact on the overall employee experience—and engagement is an outcome of that experience.

Employee Engagement Trend #1: Renewed recognition of the importance of regular communication from leaders

One of the big surprises early in the pandemic was a dramatic spike in employee engagement. Data from the Perceptyx benchmark database shows that engagement generally grew—for both remote and on-site employees—in the first six months of the pandemic, peaked in August/September of 2020, and has moderated since that time.

This engagement spike coincided with increased communication from organizations’ senior leadership. In some cases, this communication was weekly or even daily. In this time of enormous uncertainty for employees, communications from leaders provided employees with clarity and a sense of confidence that leaders were in fact leading, which bolstered employee engagement.

The takeaway is that all organizations should step up communications from senior leaders and managers—particularly for workers in remote or hybrid work environments. We know that confidence in senior leaders is a consistent driver of engagement. Moving forward, organizations should make sure there are clear opportunities for leaders to continuously update employees on the status of the company, where the organization is going, and why it’s headed there.

Employee Engagement Trend #2: New recognition of the importance of continuous listening

The disruptions of the pandemic taught organizations the value of listening to understand how to best meet the needs of different groups of employees. Equally important was the ability to parse data to understand the types of support needed by different groups. Organizations that asked for employee feedback fared better than those that didn’t—and those that acted on employee feedback performed best—on a wide variety of business outcomes.

More frequent listening is one of the latest trends in employee engagement. Organizations saw the value of frequent employee feedback in navigating the challenges of the pandemic, and recognize the value of continuing a more frequent listening cadence as they plot their return to normal operations.

Thanks to frequent surveying in many organizations, we’ve been able to track engagement throughout the pandemic. The early engagement spike noted above was one surprise, but digging deeper into the data, we learned that one of the reasons we saw engagement go up and then start to decline was that many employees began to enjoy the remote work experience in the first months of working from home. Then fatigue with working from home began to settle in with many employees—particularly for those with children at home. One of the observations we heard from employees was that they felt like they were not working from home, but rather living at work. With the line between home and work blurred, many employees struggled to find a break between them.

Early on, many employees indicated that they wanted to continue to work from home, at least part-time. By January of 2021, three-quarters of employees had changed their opinions about continuing to work remotely, though interest in hybrid work arrangements remained high. This change in sentiment underscores the fact that employee opinions and preferences are never “one and done;” they continue to evolve and change. Listening at multiple points gives leaders the most up-to-date insights into what their employees want and need.

One lesson we’ve learned from our research is that remote or hybrid work arrangements don’t work for everybody. Different groups want different things. Young people in particular are eager to get back to the office; many of them are relatively new to the job and may feel invisible when working from home. Men prefer a hybrid arrangement with three to four days in the office each week, while women would prefer to spend two to three days at the office. These preferences need to be taken into account in any new remote or hybrid work arrangements.

As many companies’ return-to-work plans solidify, continuous listening will become even more important to help leaders stay up to date on employees’ evolving needs and preferences, which vary from group to group. Listening to employees is critical to organizations for understanding what will work for their employees and to customize work arrangements to individual employee needs and preferences wherever possible.

For tips on designing a continuous listening program that fits your organization’s needs, download the free Perceptyx guide, Continuous Listening: Developing The Right Strategy For Your Organization.

Employee Engagement Trend #3: Building on lessons learned during the pandemic about the differing experiences of on-site, remote, and hybrid employees

Just as the abrupt shift to remote work was a huge social experiment, so too is the “blended” workplace that appears to be emerging in many organizations. During the pandemic, companies tested a number of radical workplace changes in a short period of time and learned what works and what doesn’t—but there are definitely many lessons to be learned about making remote and hybrid work arrangements more effective going forward. While the pandemic changed many senior leaders’ minds about how remote work could be effective and supported, at the same time, the longer people have been working remotely the more they have come to understand the reality of it. In many cases, employees have missed the daily interaction with fellow employees.

But the implications of that lack of daily physical interaction go much deeper, and organizations will need to rethink some key processes to address the unique challenges of a hybrid workforce.

Addressing Implications of Remote & Hybrid Work Arrangements

We already know that we need to think creatively to make remote/hybrid arrangements work better if they are to be permanent features moving forward. We’ve identified three major areas organizations need to focus on if they plan to continue offering remote and hybrid work opportunities for employees. All of these relate to strengthening the connection between the organization and employees who are working remotely part- or full-time.

Build a better connection between remote workers and the organization.

Organizations that plan to continue remote work will have to rethink onboarding and building connections in particular. In our research, we found that people hired and onboarded remotely in the midst of the pandemic were less connected to the organization than this same group was in the past. This had a big impact on the engagement of new hires. One of the most resilient patterns in survey data is the “honeymoon effect”; new employees typically are more engaged in their first year on the job than those who have been on the job for two or more years.

For those hired during the pandemic, there has been no honeymoon effect; this suggests that these employees have not fully attached or acculturated to the company. While they have a positive view of their manager, they are less connected to their teams or organizations.

This has all kinds of implications for the employee’s ability to work effectively with others in the organization, and to learn what’s required in the job and the performance expectations. The implications include an increase in attrition, as employees who feel less connected are more likely to leave. Knowing and liking the people you work with can be a reason to stay, but for those hired and working remotely during the pandemic, there has been no opportunity to build those relationships.

The lesson we’ve learned is that we may continue to do remote hiring, but we have to find ways to build a connection between the organization and the employee. This may require in-person onboarding and connecting with the team in person. Companies will need to be creative in finding ways to better acculturate new hires. And organizations need to also understand the implication if they hire employees who will always work remotely: There is a higher likelihood they will leave because they’ve never acculturated or built relationships with their colleagues.

The challenge for organizations will be to find ways to bring remote workers face-to-face with colleagues to help build those connections. That may encourage more communication between remote workers and their teammates, which will strengthen remote employees’ connection to the team and the organization.

Create opportunities for remote workers to build networks.

Even with purposeful in-person meeting opportunities, challenges for remote and hybrid workers will remain. Employees who work on-site have an advantage because they have more natural opportunities to build personal connections and get to know a number of their colleagues in the organization. When they find themselves in a situation where they need more information or additional resources, those relationships can be put to work.

This type of network is much harder to develop for employees who work remotely—but it’s also one of the things that make individuals more effective in their job roles. Organizations will need to consider how they can help bring remote and hybrid employees into those networks. It’s not impossible, but it needs to be done in a thoughtful way.

Ensure equitable treatment for remote workers.

Last but not least, organizations that plan to extend remote and hybrid work arrangements need to be aware of—and combat—“Office-ism.” From research, we know that people who spend fewer days in the office are less likely to get promoted or get raises.

This has implications for another recent trend in employee engagement: diversity and inclusion (D&I). Remote work is an enticing prospect for women in particular. Organizations lost a lot of women employees in the midst of the pandemic due to the competing demands of caregiving and remote learning for children. A lack of flexibility may be preventing many of these women from returning to work, but if they can be brought back with a remote or hybrid work arrangement, they are not likely to stay if the trade-off is a lack of advancement opportunities. Organizations need to think about how to ensure that women working from home have similar opportunities for advancement, even if they are in the office less frequently than their male colleagues.

The bottom line is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach for managing a remote or hybrid workforce. Solutions will depend on the culture of the organization, what it can support, and how employees interact. Organizations need to be thoughtful about how they structure remote work opportunities and how they support and monitor remote employees’ work, ensuring that performance expectations are clear, milestones are met, and that remote and hybrid employees are being offered the same opportunities for advancement as on-site employees.

All of these considerations need to be taken into account when formulating remote and hybrid work arrangements because there are no easy answers and there are repercussions for every decision. Companies that thoughtfully design remote and hybrid working arrangements to accommodate the flexibility that employees want—while avoiding the pitfalls covered above—will be well-positioned to win the post-pandemic war for talent.

Rely on employee feedback to help you see the way forward to a new, post-pandemic normal for your company.

The Perceptyx survey platform gives you the flexibility to develop a listening strategy that fits the needs of your organization. Combined with support from our analytics experts, our platform can help you keep your finger on the pulse of your people’s perceptions, so you can provide the support they need to be engaged and productive, no matter what the new normal looks like for your company.

Request a demo to see how we can help your organization develop the perfect listening strategy for your needs.

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