3 Takeaways: The Employee Experience in a Pandemic

June 3, 2020 Aaron Kinne

6-minute read

mother holding child

For me, one of the most remarkable aspects of the pandemic was how rapidly and seamlessly the workforce transitioned into a distributed model. Writing for The AtlanticJuliette Kayyem, faculty chair of the homeland security program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government observed at the time, “The community-isolation effort happened remarkably fast – within days whole communities all but closed down.” 

But as the weeks have turned into months, I’ve watched as employees’ early determination and commitment have collided with the daunting reality of what’s sure to be a long, laborious marathon. 

The relief felt by those who still have jobs has been undermined by a nagging fear that they could someday join the 40 million Americans who have filed for unemployment. The initial delight of seeing co-workers’ homes, families, and pets has dissolved into Zoom fatigue. Parents who embraced a newfound opportunity to forge closer bonds with children have met the tough reality of working remotely while trying to home-school and entertain restless, confused, and sometimes frightened boys and girls. And of course, there’s the constant fear of catching – or transmitting – a mysterious, unseen enemy about which we still seemingly know so little.

Add to that, many employees have lost a vital source of connection and community in the form of their work family. A recent New York Times article noted, “For many people, work provides a sense of identity, as well as psychological benefits that come from being productive. Many workers also benefit from the structure of a daily routine and a connection to the larger community.”

Against this backdrop, the findings of a new Workhuman® survey become particularly insightful and informative. Designed to better understand how our suddenly redefined workplace is impacting the employee experience, the survey polled more than 3,000 full-time workers in the U.S., across various industries. Their responses reveal timely and much-needed perspectives on what’s most important to workers right now, what future initiatives organizations should focus on, and how the current climate is shaping what employees are feeling. 

With that in mind, here are 3 overarching takeaways from this survey:

1.     A lack of facetime is making peer support more important than ever.

How important are workplace relationships to employees? In a word, “very.” When remote workers were asked “What do you miss most about working in the office?” the top answer was “my colleagues” – placing it ahead of culture, work/life balance, and routine. We know that relationships are key to employee retention and these survey results reaffirm the inherent and fundamental need for employees to have connection.   

What about manager-employee relationships during COVID-19? When workers were asked how well their managers boosted motivation and engagement during this time, the average score was a disappointing 65/100 for. This is concerning because, as Gallup has reported, managers have a significant impact on employee engagement scores. 

How often have workers felt a sense of loneliness and isolation since the pandemic began? Forty-two percent said once a week or more often. And 10% said they felt lonely every day. This is another concerning finding because, according to the World Health Organization, depression and anxiety have a significant economic impact, costing the global economy an estimated $1 trillion per year in lost productivity. Keeping a focus on programs that support social connection is the key to driving engagement right now.

2.     Burnout and stress are prevalent.

The survey showed that social distancing, health risks, and loss of routine are all wearing on people: 38% of workers experienced a form of burnout during the pandemic, and – as you might expect – for working parents the number was even higher at 42%. 

Surprisingly, 25% of respondents reported their sense of work/life balance became worse over this time period – even though, for many, this was their first time working from home. The reason? Twenty-six percent of workers admitted they were working more hours. “Be careful work doesn’t become your home and your home doesn’t become your work,” urged Trevor Noah during the recent Workhuman® Livestream event. Unfortunately, it appears many are unable to heed his advice. 

So what should organizations be doing to help employees achieve better work-life harmony? For starters, they need to encourage workers to take time off to recharge and refresh. When asked, “What is the biggest change you’d like to see happen in the workplace after COVID-19?” the top answer was “more flexible work-from-home policies” (39%), followed by “more recognition for the work we’re doing” (18%). 

On that last point, organizations need to take a good hard look at how they show appreciation to employees: a stunning 62% of workers in the survey said they have not been recognized since the pandemic began.

3.     New policies, perks, and work styles will become the norm.

“Millions of Americans are taking part in an unplanned work-from-home experiment as we weather our way through the COVID-19 crisis,” observed Workhuman evangelist Lynne Levy in her recent post. “And looking ahead, there are many signs that we may never get back to how things were before.” 

Lynne’s perspective was certainly borne out in many of the survey findings. In what might be a bright spot, the pandemic has compelled many organizations to take a fresh look at the benefits and perks they offer to workers. And here the news is good: Nearly half of respondents (45%) reported their companies had extended new benefits and/or perks during the pandemic:

  • 18% of companies gave additional sick leave
  • 15% of companies offered extra paid time off for caregiving (children or elders)
  • 14% of companies provided hazard pay
  • 14% of companies offered additional wellness programs

Another positive to emerge from the crisis? Many companies are conducting a thorough review of office layouts and hygiene as they pivot toward bringing back part of their workforce to an onsite setting. This is an important issue for employees; as the survey showed, workers need to feel comfortable before they’ll return. When asked what’s the biggest change they’d like to see after COVID-19, write-in responses included “healthy facilities,” “increased measures of safety and cleanliness,” and “better contingency planning.”

But even if organizations are able to demonstrate they’ve taken extra safety measures, it may not be enough to fully resuscitate the traditional Monday-Friday, 9-5 office schedule. When given the choice between working for the rest of their career from home with their family, or solely in an open office, 53% of those surveyed chose the former.

A bellwether of things to come?

During Workhuman Livestream, best-selling author Simon Sinek discussed the trauma we are all experiencing these days. He pointed out many of us have been in mission mode for months. But at some point, he reminded us, “we are going to have to deal with the emotional trauma.”  

Along with its insights into what employees are experiencing during this evolving crisis, these latest survey results – like Simon’s predictions – serve as a bellwether of the challenges organizations will face as we emerge from our current state of affairs. It points to the need for organizations to create more human-centered work cultures that put employees first.

Writing in Forbes, Workhuman CEO and co-founder Eric Mosley observed, “A human-centered culture emphasizes the connections among employees and the purpose behind their work, both of which help enable organizations to rebound with an engaged and resilient set of employees.”

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About the Author

Aaron Kinne

Aaron Kinne is a senior writer at Workhuman.

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