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8 Employee Engagement Trends for 2021 (for the 'New Normal')

employee engagement will increase happy employees

Much has been written and theorized about employee engagement since it first appeared as a management theory in the 1990s. Since then, consulting firms and experts have devised definitions, surveys and strategies that many business leaders have devoured and implemented with eager anticipation. Unfortunately, many employee engagement strategies then end up being side-lined by managers and ignored by employees.

Why? Because measures are often lengthy, one-dimensional surveys that adopt a one-size-fits-all approach. It seldom considers cultural differences for global employers, is mostly stereotypical and usually contains unconscious biases. Also, employees, line managers and supervisors often don’t fully understand the purpose.

The 2019 Gallup poll on employee engagement showed an improvement from the percentages of previous years. It found that 34% of workers in the USA were actively engaged in their job; they were enthusiastic and committed to their work and employer. That was the highest percentage recorded since Gallup began reporting on employee engagement in 2000. It tied with 34% published in 2016.

In 2019, according to the report, 13% of workers were actively disengaged; miserable, resentful and only turning up every day so that they could get paid. That was a new low from 16.5% previously.

So what about the remaining 53% noting that they make up the bulk of the workforce? They’re “not engaged”!

That means they’re satisfied with their job, employer and working conditions, but not cognitively and emotionally connected in any way. These workers show up precisely on time, are mostly pleasant, do what they’ve been told to do and head out at home-time on the dot.

There was a lot of excitement around the increase in engaged workers (which is nice to see). Little was said, though, about the 53% who roll in and out like the tides, doing only what’s necessary. Surely at such a high percentage, they warrant more attention?

Considering how much time and effort was invested in improving employee engagement for almost three decades, what went wrong? By reasonable standards, 34% engagement is a fail. Add 53% un-engaged to 13% disengaged, and you get 66% - a standard pass in the wrong direction.

Further research from Business Insider (AU) says that the average person spends more than 90,000 hours at work over their lifetime. But 80% of people are dissatisfied with their jobs, while 60% of people believe work is a key factor in their insomnia and 25% of workers say stress is the number one source of stress in their life. A further 42% of employees claim that when they go on leave they feel pressure to engage with their work, so they don’t get proper down time.

Anyway, it’s unlikely that those stats have any relevance now since the COVID-19 pandemic hit us and turned everything we previously thought we knew on its head!

Table of contents

Employee engagement will not be what is was pre-COVID-19

Governments, scientists, environmentalists, and medical experts worldwide keep telling us that our world will never be as it was before we heard of Novel Coronavirus. As some the working population stresses over whether they’ll still have a job at the end of 2020, others have already been laid off.

A business world irrevocably changed

Initial public resistance and disbelief have given way to acceptance and worry over job security, the economy and financial security. Organizations are scrambling to rethink and strategize everything from safety operations, keeping their customers and how they’re going to reintegrate a changing workforce. 

So what about employee engagement post-COVID19?

One thing’s for sure - there’ll be no shortage of employees willing to return to work; people need to earn an income. But what about productivity, commitment and employee engagement?

Many employers will get it right, and others won’t. If you’re going to keep things as they were pre-COVID-19, it’s unlikely that you’ll keep top employees once we’re on the inevitable economic upswing.

Right now, most people are still in survival mode, just making their way through the unknown day by day to survive this pandemic. But business leaders who are innovators and visionaries are already planning for the way they’ll do business when we return to our new productive and prosperous normal. They’re busy figuring out how they’ll adapt their operations, environment, services and HR practices to align with inevitable changes.

These are leaders who are embracing change rather than resisting it. (An F4S analysis will show them to have high motivations in Initiation, Alternatives, Breadth, Concept and Away from Problems, amongst others.)

They know that not only will the way we do business change, but people’s attitudes, motivations and expectations will have radically shifted.

Employee expectations are going to change

Once the fear and dust have settled, employers will see a marked change in employees’ attitudes and expectations. Physical distancing and hygiene have proved themselves to protect people, so employees are going to carry this back to the workplace. If you were cramming people along production lines or in cubicles in an office environment, expect resistance. 

Also, workplace health and safety measures will feature highly. Things like headsets and keyboards shared from one shift to the next in a call center environment, say, will be rejected by staff.

Health and safety measures are the most critical factors that will be the catalyst of employee engagement, staff retention and customer loyalty. People aren’t just going to forget this pandemic. The shock and trauma will linger. No one will want it to happen again, so companies that share that concern and intention and write it into their values will win respect and loyalty. 

If that seems a little odd, consider this:

  • Most people never thought something like this could happen; now they have no doubt.
  • Media has opened up channels of awareness about how quickly diseases can spread.
  • People have become more aware of the adverse effects we have on our environment.
  • COVID-19 has shown that the environment is kicking back (and it packs a real punch).
  • Environmental awareness is going to rise rapidly among the general public.
  • The need for quality and appreciation of life is going to increase.

Employees and customers are going to support businesses that take all of the above into consideration and weave it into their business plans, values, culture, products and service.

When regular trading resumes, organizations are going to have to step up services, production and sales to recoup losses, and to do that they need a committed and engaged workforce. 

Why is employee engagement important going forward? You can’t make up lost ground with a workforce that’s plodding in and out every day, feeling unhappy and resentful. 

Considering that 66% of the workforce already felt that way pre this pandemic, you’ve got to modify what you do to change employee attitudes and motivations. 

How businesses will adapt to retain and attract top talent

Apart from innovation and vision, it’s going to take investment and a whole new approach to get companies running at a profit again. But technology is at the rescue of every industry. Digitization of processes will become essential to stay competitive. Not only does tech speed up processes, but it’s also a safer option, especially for industries that interact with customers face to face.

The other essential will be workplace hygiene and safety measures as well as strict hygiene standards for customer interactions and deliveries. For example, customers can place orders and make payments online, then collect from safe bays, or have deliveries made with high safety standards. Environmentally friendly options for packaging, manufacture, etc. will also win customer support.

And employees will feel great working for a company that doesn’t contribute towards harming the environment. Knowing that your employer is making a concerted and positive contribution to people safety and the environment will boost employee engagement. It feels good to work for a company that cares!

To get the balance right, though, businesses are first going to have to understand how they must change what they do. They also have to know what people’s expectations are. Finally, they have to ask “what is employee engagement?”

Despite all the definitions, at the core, employee engagement means people arrive at work keen to start their day, complete tasks enthusiastically, and want to do it right. With that attitude, employees will be innovative, willing to go the extra mile and spontaneously expand their job responsibilities because they enjoy what they do. 

Employees develop this attitude in a healthy working environment that encourages communication and gives recognition. You find that in companies that show care and respect across the board. They’re organizations that people can trust.

8 trends that you must start considering now

According to Gallup’s State of the American Workplace, pre-COVID-19, only 3.4% of US employees worked remotely permanently. A further 43% worked remotely occasionally.

But what do employees and managers say now? In a Future of Work survey:

  1. 78% of managers think that flexible work schedules and telecommuting will be the most effective means of increasing employee retention.
  2. 82% of businesses in the USA intend using flexible work locations to improve work-life balance going forward.
  3. 83% of employees now say that the ability to work remotely would be the deciding factor if they’re deciding between two jobs.
  4. 32% of employees state that the opportunity to work remotely is more important now than a more senior-level job.
  5. 66% of employees will consider leaving their job if they’re denied flexibility.
  6. 75% of people who work remotely have fewer distractions making them more productive.
  7. 90% of employees stated that working remotely boosts their morale.
  8. 54% of workers will leave their job for one that offers more flexibility.

Pre-COVID-19 Gallup research found that employees who work remotely at least three to four days a week are more engaged than employees who don’t. 

The same study states that job flexibility engages remote workers more, which drives performance. The report further says that staff turnover was 25% lower in companies that allowed flexible work schedules, and remote workers were also 20% to 25% more productive than their onsite peers.

What do these trends tell us?

To foster employee engagement in future, employers are going to have to embrace technology and flexibility. That’s what the post-Novel Coronavirus workforce wants, what will attract top talent and what will make companies employers of choice.

How to improve employee engagement going forward

New trends will arise, and some will work, and others won’t. Also, trends will differ from one industry to another. 

Remote working will become the new norm, rather than a perk

Remote positions will increase as companies invest in technology that allows employees to work from home or off-site, permanently or part-time. This will also open companies up to attracting remote global talent who will bring unique skills, introduce different ideas and motivate improvements.

Workers will demand radical transparency

Discussing workplace changes with employees as they happen will help eliminate insecurity and speculation. Listening to their ideas and opinions will make them feel that they’re still relative. 

Remember, staff will expect change, but won’t know how it will be affected, implemented or impact them personally. That creates rumor-mongering and insecurity. Honest and radically transparent communication is essential to get employees to buy in to change.

Give employees a choice

Once you’ve identified positions that suit remote working, give employees an option. Not everyone whose job suits remote working can work remotely. Especially working from home; they might not have a supportive home environment.

Be proactive about improving your employee’s workstation

For those who elect to work remotely, ensure that they’re equipped to succeed in their job. Provide them with all the hardware and software needed to get their work done and to keep in touch. 

Tailor responsibilities to each employee, but make expectations clear

Set up individual agreements stating what’s required and detailing processes and responsibilities.

Employees have to know what’s expected of them, how they’ll contribute to team success and what impact their role has on business success.

Prioritize remote communication channels

Workers that remain on site must also be fully briefed on their new roles and which colleagues will be working remotely. Implement quick communication channels so that teams can keep in contact, wherever they are, and also have meet-ups to discuss project progress and other issues.

Make building a psychologically safe workplace your top priority

Allow staff to raise workplace safety concerns. Always be open to listening to employee feedback and take action. They’re at the rock face; they know exactly what’s happening and what customers are saying. Knowing that your employer values your input and feedback breeds loyalty that converts to employee engagement.

Make sure each team member is in the right role for them

We all know the feeling: it’s an uphill battle to feel engaged when you are working on projects that don’t align with your natural motivations. 

For example, someone who is highly creative and motivated for the big picture will feel entirely drained of energy when working on monotonous tasks that require dealing with a great deal of detail each day. This will hurt performance and cause the person to become disengaged and frustrated.

As a leader it’s your responsibility to make the most of the innate ‘genius’ of each individual on your team. So in this example above, ideally you’d try to swap the detail-oriented work for something a bit more broad-minded, and hand off the detailed projects to someone else on the team that thrives with that kind of work.

Many issues with team dynamics stem from someone not being in the right role for them. And almost all team conflicts can be resolved with awareness around individual preferences at work and in communication styles.

Get employees on board with big overarching goals

Finally, once everyone understands their role, feels comfortable in their environment and knows what to do, it’s up to management to get employees on board with the company’s overarching goals so that companies can start trading again. Seeing trade pick up, and profits increasing will eliminate fear and job insecurity. People will roll up their sleeves and be willing to do their bit to improve business success.

Experiencing a shared trauma and tragedy has an amazing way of pulling people together towards a common goal of survival and success.

How to measure employee engagement in a crisis when your workforce is no longer static?

It might seem like a challenge to manage and motivate a remote workforce, but that’s just because it’s still a new concept for many organizations. HR is going to play a vital role in managing employee engagement, and managers and supervisors are going to have to focus on motivation and productivity. All levels of management and supervisors must be trained in how to manage a flexible and remote workforce.

Here are some changes to expect:

  • Recruitment processes and employee engagement measures are going to change.
  • Employees will no longer be hired for skills and experience alone. 
  • Cultural fit no longer fits all industries. 
  • Recruiters and HR are going to give careful consideration to attitudes and motivation when selecting candidates for a radically changed workforce.

Upskilling and training new and existing employees is easy. But they have to have the right attitudes and motivations to adapt, cope and be productive. And these indicators don’t come from personality tests.

Twenty years of research conducted by F4S has proven that outdated career tests and personality tests offer no value to employers or job seekers.

Changes to the workplace that aren’t adequately explained and well managed can lead to an exodus of staff - leaving already strained businesses facing a slew of new hires. But that can be mitigated by having HR and managers work closely with all employees individually to measure how they’re coping. 

F4S is an intuitive people management app that’s designed to expose attitudes and motivations to improve individual and team performance. It reveals talents and strengths, but also blind spots that are holding employees back.

Unlike personality tests which are a static snapshot, F4S is a living coaching based measurement system. It allows individuals and teams to work to improve blind spots and develop strengths and also measure their progress. All of this in real-time with online coaching support readily available.

How will this help develop employee engagement?

It eliminates rigid employee engagement assessments that were mostly conducted once or twice a year and seldom acted on. It puts an employee or manager’s challenges into real-time. If there’s an issue, HR and the employee can work together to resolve the problem on an ongoing basis with support from expert coaches at F4S.

People will understand why they’re not making progress and management can assist by offering the best support. This kind of people management is much friendlier and makes sense to employees who can monitor their own development and self-improvement. 

That in itself is a motivator for increased employee engagement.

Closing thoughts

Rigid working hours, assessments and analyses aren’t going to fit into the post-COVID-19 business world. We all knew that the Fourth Industrial Revolution was edging its way into the workplace, we just didn’t expect it to make its full arrival so fast and with such a bang.

Business success will be measured by outputs, positive results and achieving goals and profits.

Teamwork will become essential; micromanagement will have to be replaced with trust; assigning responsibility to employees with confidence will become the norm.

Employee engagement has always been about working for a company where people feel comfortable, cared about, respected and valued. Whether at work or in regular life, when we treat each other that way, we usually bring out the best in one another.

If you want to align your workforce with post-COVID-19 expectations and changes to stay one step ahead of your competitors, F4S can help. Here's how:

  • Measure and report on personal motivation at work
  • Measure and analyse company wide motivation at work
  • Measure and analyse company culture
  • Create personal and company wide interventions to improve happiness at work
  • Promote employee growth and development and also increase collaboration (the two most cited reasons for dissatisfaction at work)

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