How engaged people are in their work depends on a myriad of factors from corporate culture to manager behavior, from daily tasks to what’s going on in their personal lives. Google the term “employee engagement” and you’ll get 347 million results in less than one second, so it’s safe to say this is a topic there is much ado about. Plus, the words themselves have taken on a whole new meaning and level of analysis in the work-from-anywhere COVID world.
In May, a Gallup study revealed that “the percentage of ‘engaged’ workers in the U.S.—those who are highly involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace—reached 38%.” This is the highest that number has been since the organization started tracking it more than two decades ago. Shortly afterward, in July, Gallup reported that “tracking finds the most significant drop we have recorded in our history of tracking employee engagement in the U.S.”—down seven points to 31%. This brings several things to mind:
Thirty-eight percent is the highest percentage of engaged workers in this country in 20 years… that, well, kind of stinks. Perhaps U.S. companies aren’t great to work for, generally speaking?
The analysis here may be in the eye of the beholder, I suppose. But, in the land of the free, the American Dream, the beacon on the hill, why don’t more people like what they do for most of their waking hours? Why are we excited that 38% is high? Why aren’t more of us “enthusiastic and committed” at work?
The answer is multipronged. Some of it is deeply rooted in systemic issues that prevent people from fully engaging in their work like, for example, abysmal parental leave policies, inflexible work environments, and a dearth of affordable childcare options. Those things aside, there are more challenges that may be fixable at the individual and company levels, like offering employees better onboarding and training programs, showing them how what they do impacts the organization and its goals, and recognizing examples of success early and often. I explored this issue in Contact Center Pipeline earlier this year in “5 Ways to Elevate the Agent Experience.” There is a lot we could and should be doing that is within employers’ control.
Related: 5 Ways to Elevate the Agent Experience
Sidenote: The rest of this picture, according to the May Gallup study, is ugly as well: “The remaining 49% of workers are ‘not engaged’—meaning they are psychologically unattached to their work and company. These employees put time, but not energy or passion, into their work. ‘Not engaged’ employees typically show up to work and contribute the minimum effort required.” That’s basically HALF of the workforce doing as little as possible to remain employed. Thumbs down.
Though 38% engagement feels low in a vacuum, of all the times to be at the highest percentage recorded, during a pandemic is certainly an interesting one.
What’s curious amid the gloom above is that, during the pandemic, employees have been more engaged than they have been in 20 years. Perhaps they’ve felt happier working at home. Perhaps they’ve been pleased with how their bosses have handled the uncertainties of the time. And, likely, maybe they’ve simply been thankful to be employed. Gallup says, “Even though well-being is falling in aggregate due to the pandemic and recession, engaging work can serve as a buffer that makes lives somewhat better.” It’s probably a little bit of everything and, as leaders, we need to identify the factors that drive engagement north and replicate those as the world, our work and our people continue to evolve.
To go from the highest to the lowest engagement inside of two short months points to volatility that matches our environment and our collective consciousness.
“Gallup’s latest data suggest that leaders’ COVID-19 communication efforts have slipped. The protracted, dynamic nature of the pandemic has left many feeling weary and longing for the finish line.” This data mirrors what any casual observer can see across civilization in general. We are living through a challenging time, people are tired, many have children still stuck at home, reopening is not going as smoothly as many hoped, and most just want to go back to “normal” as soon as possible—whatever that is.
The seven-point drop in engagement tracks eerily closely to general optimism in May around reopening and then resurgent fear in June and July around spiking infection rates and reversing reopening steps that had been taken. As of late June, 65% of U.S. adults say the coronavirus situation is getting worse, up from just 33% saying the same in early May. For the first few months of the pandemic, employers were overly attentive to communication with employees, customers, partners and others. At the five-month mark, “Pandemic Fatigue” is real and it shows.
What do we need to hold onto from this time going forward, and what do we need to do differently to engage our people as we push forward?
The essential truth is that without our people, we have no company. The onslaught of a global pandemic, overnight work-from-home mandates, a volatile economy, the prospect of becoming unwell, and endless unanswerable questions have forced employers to dig deep to deliver the empathy employees need and deserve. The data tells the story. Empathy breeds engagement. And anxiety about how and when people will return to in-office work, and what that will mean for health and well-being, breeds fear and disengagement.
5 Pandemic Lessons to Put into Action
Since no one can say with certainty where or when the finish line is, we need to start acting on what we do know. Here are 5 lessons from the pandemic that we can take with us as we push on.
1. Communicate more. Yes, even more than that.
It’s the reason why stage actors cake on makeup and overly enunciate. When the audience is far away, overdoing it actually conveys as pitch-perfect. As leaders, we must acknowledge that our audience is and has been far away lately, and maybe a little (a lot?) distracted. So it follows that we need to speak a little more loudly, clearly and often to make sure they can hear us over the noise. If you think it feels like too much, it’s probably just right.
2. Lead with facts and feels.
Data drives a lot of decision-making in business, as well it should. But it can’t be the only thing. Leaders need to try something new, something probably slightly uncomfortable. When we lead with humanity, with heart, we build loyalty. When we regard our employees as individuals, we gain commitment. When we speak honestly and with transparency, we establish trust. When our concern for our people goes beyond what they can do for us, we get the same in return. So, whatever you’re doing, try it again. This time, with feeling!
3. 9-to-5 is so 2019.
Much to the shock of most corporate leaders, the COVID lockdowns have revealed that working from home actually works. And, in many scenarios, working odd hours helps employees and organizations more than it hurts. Harvard Business Review says, “During the pandemic, many employees have already gone about completing their assignments remotely, and quite likely, on their own timelines. We have already seen considerable discussion lately about where (e.g., from home) and how (e.g., using video conferencing technology) people will work in a post-pandemic world, but additional thought should also be given to when everyone works.”
4. Managers mean business.
Literally. This group is the key to making it work at work. They are the link between ideas and action. Managers take the company strategy and make it understandable, relatable and executable for their teams. This group is learning a whole new set of skills to engage people remotely, ease their concerns, and create team unity from afar so leaders must prioritize manager development now more than ever.
5. Talk is cheap.
That’s both good and bad—good in that it costs us nothing and goes a long way toward building trust and engagement. We should be having an ongoing open dialogue with our people. It’s bad because without action behind it, the words land as empty and we lose what we work hard to create with our teams. We need to think, talk and then DO.
Focus on What You Want More of
Gallup makes clear that “if employees don’t feel supported or informed, their performance, engagement and well-being are on the line—which puts bottom-line outcomes at risk, too.”
Now, as much if not more than ever, we cannot afford a disengaged workforce. Like most of you, I cannot wait until this era is a distant memory. However, I am also doing what a wise mentor once advised me: focus on what you want more of. I want more good work, more goodwill, more belief in and commitment to what we’re all doing together. And I will get that by putting these lessons into action.