Employee Engagement trends during a pandemic

Author - Morten Hartvig Berg, Head of People Insights

For most organizations, the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic were spent firefighting and figuring out how to sustain some degree of operations while abiding by an ever-growing list of regulations and guidelines. But when the dust settled and most offices had been cleared out, a new reality dawned on HR and leadership teams around the world: Our workforce is currently facing levels of fear and insecurity most of them have never experienced before, and all our normal ways of looking out for our people and offer our support are gone!

Employee surveys are the obvious go-to solution, but then came the question: "Do you survey during a crisis?" Some of the usual front runners took the lead by creating customized surveys or completing the surveys already planned. Their results were clear; the surveys were received as both a sign of showing care and interest as well as a very welcomed outlet for concerns but also gratitude. Survey usage grew from there and the amount of data from a wide range of international organizations is now at a size where general tendencies are visible.

Surprising first results

The first surveys were completed in the early stages of the lockdown and the results were surprising. Motivation, which is a key element of engagement, had not dropped! Overall, the tendency for motivation was showing an uptrend and this was especially the case for the perception of top management. These observations also held true for companies who were already scoring very high in times where Corona was just a beer from Mexico.

At the same time, employees' use of the open comment fields significantly increased, and the messages were more positive than usual. Many respondents took the opportunity to show gratitude for the company's handling of the crisis and were pointing to specific things such as the frequency of company-wide communication and the flexibility shown in relation to working hours. The open comment result also had a lot of concrete suggestions for how to address the times ahead.

Delayed reactions

More than a month has now passed since the first results rolled in and in the most recent surveys, two new patterns are beginning to emerge. In countries where school and daycare have reopened, the work/life balance increased drastically for employees with kids. No surprise here, but an important improvement for the sustainability of working remotely.

However, a more concerning development is showing when it comes to motivation. While results for those who remained in the workplace are stable, their colleagues working from home (even if they are no longer double hatting as teachers) are now showing a negative trend.

It seems, that in the beginning many were positively surprised about how well they were able to continue their work from home. This way we could uphold some degree of normality and we even got an opportunity to learn new ways of collaborating virtually. We got a glimpse of our colleagues' living rooms, gave a virtual high five to their chihuahua and saw our boss in her favorite old hoodie and a just-rolled-out-of-bed hairstyle. Also, our opportunity to keep contributing to the organization gave some relief to the lurking fear of joining the increasing group of people becoming jobless as a result of the pandemic.

This development indicates that the negative effects of disconnectedness are setting in, albeit somewhat delayed compared to what many initially expected. Hence, now is truly the time for leaders and HR to get close and prioritize those relational needs that are so crucial for our feeling of connectedness and well-being.

Cohesion is key

A simplistic way of setting the people agenda for this stage of the pandemic, is to look at three primary needs we look to fulfill at work; purpose, fit and cohesion. The first two have appeared to be easier to fulfill while being co-located than many of us had thought. It even looks like it is accelerating the transformation of how work is done in many organizations. But the third is starting to suffer after weeks without the physical and social interaction we took for granted not so long ago.

The awareness that we all need to cultivate, is that, even though we only meet virtually, we are each other's psychological work environment. We need to establish surrogates for the way we usually would be able to pick up on signs of declined well-being from our colleagues. For the majority, our online meetings have predefined agendas and objectives and they end as abruptly as they start when we click the red button. We do not walk next to one another back to the desks or swing by the (oh so missed) Italian coffeemaker. So, we need to prioritize alternatives. Instead of jumping right to agenda item no 1 (or as soon as Harold finally located his unmute button) we should take 5 min. to ask how people are. Or take a virtual lunch or coffee break without any other purpose, than sharing how we are feeling on, what feels like day 913 of working in the same pants.

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Morten Hartvig Berg, Head of People Insights

Morten Hartvig Berg, Head of People Insights

Morten has solid international HR experience and advises our clients who apply employee journey concepts. He is responsible for our People Analytics concepts and contributes to concept development in general.