The Pandemic Has Increased Employee Engagement — Except Where It Hasn’t

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Dec 16, 2021
This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.

Without question, Covid has packed a wallop on employee engagement in many organizations. Companies should be paying close attention because engagement is shorthand for employees’ willingness to give their best work, as well as their emotional commitment to the organization and its goals. 

Companies should also be concerned. According to a recent survey by of HR professionals, the pandemic took a virtual cleaver to employee engagement. 

The Covid Cleaver

When we collected data on employee engagement back in 2019, we found that the largest group of respondents (40%) said engagement levels had not changed over the previous two years. In other words, engagement was fairly stable.

Today, however, only 18% of HR professionals say engagement didn’t change over the previous two years. The good news is about half of organizations said engagement had actually improved. The bad news is that nearly a third said it had declined. In other words, engagement has gotten a whole lot less stable. 

Our theory is that the pandemic helped drive both the increases and decreases in engagement levels. Let’s start with the increases. 

First, it may be that less engaged employees were among the first to lose their jobs during the economic downturn caused by the pandemic, resulting in an increase in average engagement levels among those who stayed on the job. 

Second, it is also possible that the increase in the number of stay-at-home jobs helped raise the engagement levels of some employees, especially those with long commutes and those who had been having a hard time balancing work and family issues.

But then how to explain the increase in the percentage of those who say that engagement levels have dropped? This also may be linked to pandemic-related issues such as larger workloads or health and safety concerns in the workplace. It can also be difficult for managers to bring together remote, traditional, and hybrid workers so that teams are engaged and performing well. 

We also asked about the engagement levels of the average employee. Again, we noted the cleaver effect. Half said that on a scale of 1 to 10, their average employees enjoy an engagement of 8, 9, or 10. That’s pretty high. But the other half said the average employee had an engagement level of 7 or below. Pretty low. Such is the split nature of today’s employee engagement.

Two-Minded Management

The splintered nature of employee engagement is also reflected in employer attitudes and actions. Most HR professionals strongly believe that employee engagement has lots of positive effects on the organization. To a high or very high degree, they see it as positively impacting customer service (76%), wellbeing (74%), company brand (73%), retention (72%), and productivity (72%). 

But you wouldn’t know it by the attitudes of senior leaders. The troubling fact is that just 30% of respondents indicated that senior leaders prioritize engagement, and only 24% said they invest enough in engagement-related resources.

Half-Hearted Measurement

Then there’s the matter of metrics. As important as HR professionals believe engagement is, you’d think they’d all be tracking it. 

But you’d be wrong. In fact, fewer than two-thirds measure employee engagement, with large organizations measuring it more often than mid-sized and small businesses. 

Even among those that do measure engagement, however, many seem to take a half-hearted approach. The most common method? Using the old standby of performance management systems. Even those, however, are only used by 53% of respondents to measure engagement. Meanwhile, close to half measure engagement by looking at productivity numbers. 

Of course, taking such approaches may make sense if one assumes that performance and productivity are strongly correlated with engagement, but it’s questionable whether that actually gets at the emotional quality of engagement. What’s more, as our own research shows, a mere 40% believe that performance management systems accurately portray performance! You may get the point here: If performance management can’t measure performance, then how is it supposed to measure engagement?

That said, to gauge emotions, employee surveys are often useful and, indeed, annual surveys are the third most commonly used methodology. Sometimes known as engagement or climate surveys, these annual surveys are cited by 48% of respondents whose firms measure engagement.

All In on Engagement

Ultimately, research indicates that highly engaged organizations tend to be single-minded in their approach to employee engagement. That is, they tend to prioritize it, measure it, act on those metrics, as well as train managers on how to actually achieve it.

This doesn’t mean that they don’t concern themselves with other key talent issues or view engagement as a panacea. After all, there’s more to business success and employee experience than engagement. But they take it seriously, especially now that there’s such an exodus of employees from their jobs and hiring new talent is a huge challenge.

In the end, organizations that go all in on engagement are most likely to emerge from the so-called Great Resignation in good shape. Higher rates of engagement should help them attract and retain good employees while keeping their customers happier and their operations performing more smoothly.

This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.