What Employee Engagement Looks Like in 2021

5-minute read

employees working at two computersSince the COVID-19 pandemic began, countless workers have shown what they’re made of: strong stuff. From grocery clerks to knowledge workers, they have dug in, remained engaged, and gone the extra mile to get their work done in conditions more challenging than anyone could have imagined in 2019.  

But the changed world of 2021 and beyond will present its own employee engagement challenges – some familiar, others novel. Many of us will begin to return to the office, facing fears for our health, both physical and mental. Some of us will continue to work from home, encountering longer-term challenges to engagement different from last year’s. 

A refresher on employee engagement 

What is employee engagement? Fundamentally, engagement is workers’ felt connection to the organization, as expressed through their commitment to the mission, investment of themselves in the workplace, and enthusiasm that engenders extra effort. And in these times of pandemic and racial reckoning, engagement also encompasses empathy for the challenges that confront colleagues, even when those challenges are different from our own. 

Address COVID burnout, a threat to engagement. 

First, we need to acknowledge what a tough year 2020 was, and act on that knowledge. 

“I have a close eye on burnout and job satisfaction, because we’ve been working so hard, even though mostly remote,” says Christine Bolzan, executive director of Gloucester Marine Genomics Institute in Gloucester, Massachusetts. She’s made a point of “celebrating every win we had during this year of historic challenges,” and will continue to do so in 2021. 

Keep an eye on well-being as well as engagement. 

Jim Harter takes a similar view. “Historically, even during tough times, we haven’t seen much fluctuation in engagement,” says Harter, chief scientist of workplace and well-being at Gallup. “Engagement can be a stabilizing force in people’s lives. But we need to look at well-being, not just engagement – and well-being changed a lot during the pandemic.” 

Acknowledge the influence of DE&I issues on engagement. 

In addition to traditional dimensions of  engagement, in 2021 employers need to understand the role of mental health and diversity, equity, and inclusion in employee well-being. 

With anonymous surveys, consider asking vulnerable employee demographics – including women, people of color, and women of color – why they feel engaged or not, and what makes them feel engaged or included, advises Asfa Malik, a consultant on human resources and diversity, equity, and inclusion. Perform analyses to determine if members of diverse  demographic groups have different perceptions of where the organization is equitable and inclusive and where it is not. “Employees will share if you ask them,” she says. 

Through the pandemic, engagement has depended more than ever on technological equity. “People of color may not have the same toolset for working from home – like broadband and a well-equipped laptop – and some companies are not investing in this,” says Malik. With hybrid, in office/at home work arrangements proliferating this year, tech equity among employees should be a key area of employer investment. 

Honor the memory of George Floyd with action. 

It’s easy to make wrong assumptions about the causes of disengagement. In the first months of 2020, few of us would have guessed that the greatest damage to employee engagement would be brought on by a calamity other than the pandemic. 

Gallup’s U.S. Employee Engagement Index dropped from 38 in May 2020 to 31 in June, the most significant decline since the firm began measuring engagement in 2000. Which events  apparently caused many employees to become less engaged? The death of George Floyd and the trauma that followed, according to Harter. 

“That steep drop was greatest for leaders and managers, who had to find ways to address what was happening,” Harter says. “It took them some time to figure out how to communicate, how to listen.” 

Don’t let up on office safety as employees return. 

Malik says that employers need to consider employees’ point of view as they reboard: “How do you think my engagement will be if the company doesn’t have a safety plan for employees returning to the office,” she asks. “When managers force me to come in, how do you think I feel about my boss?” 

Keep in mind that health and safety have demographic dimensions. “People of color are generally at greater risk of getting COVID and dying from it, so they are more anxious about it than their white counterparts,” says Malik. Since anxiety works against engagement, employers need to take visible and credible measures to reduce the risk of infection and ensure employees’ access to vaccination. Hygiene theater isn’t enough. 

Now more than ever, bosses must coach 

With millions of professionals working from home in 2020, employers were forced to empower employees to work more autonomously – mostly with good results. “Now there’s a chance to reflect on what worked and what didn’t in hybrid arrangements,” says Harter. “Organizations must move managers from a boss mentality to a coaching mentality.” 

It’s also important to recognize that stresses on employees won’t let up until the pandemic is firmly in the rear-view mirror. With COVID-19 variants in the community, “this will be an uneasy period,” says Hyland. “Organizations need to show empathy.

Workhuman's MoodtrackerTM is a free pulse survey tool that can help organizations stay in tune with their people’s engagement and well-being through the pandemic and in the next normal.

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About the Author

John Rossheim

John Rossheim writes about healthcare, diversity, recruiting and human resources.

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