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Why employee engagement increased in 2020 and what you need to do about it today

Posted by: Megan Younkin

For many businesses, the biggest win in 2020 was simply staying in business. Not everyone got to celebrate this, and those who did should consider themselves fortunate. An interesting thing happened while we were all focused on COVID-19’s impact; employee engagement went up, and not by an insignificant amount. According to People Element’s recent Engagement Report, employee engagement increased by 5% in 2020. For context, when coaching organizations I tell them that a 2% increase in one year is something to be proud of, and that’s assuming they do all the right actions. Engagement is not generally a needle that moves fast.

Before I discuss why I believe this happened and how we should respond to it, it’s important to remind ourselves that while the reasons themselves are interesting to know, what we do with this information and how we respond to it is really the key.

So here are the three things I believe contributed most to a 5% increase in engagement in one year… a year where simply staying afloat took priority over employee engagement for many companies:

Reason #1: Rallying Around A Common Purpose

People Element CEO Chris Coberly said it best: “… the data reveals employees felt more connected to their organizations and coworkers as they came together to support each other and overcome business challenges.” I know I felt this personally, as did a lot of people I’ve spoken with. Facing a global crisis really brought organizations together for a common purpose that everyone rallied around. Goals and vision became laser-focused, contributing to a higher sense of connection and effort. Connection and effort are two things we connect directly to employee engagement.

Reason #2:  Organizational Adjustments to External Factors

Many people at the organizations I work with are very honest with me – they did not spend a lot of time and energy specifically focusing on increasing employee engagement starting in March 2020. But what a lot of organizations DID do was respond quickly to significant external factors. Whether it was increasing org-wide communication, creating new processes to keep people safe, providing flexibility for work locations and schedules, or some combination of all the above, companies responded to this pandemic in order to survive. Even if these actions weren’t taken specifically for the purpose of increasing employee engagement, it happened anyway. This makes a lot of sense to me, as strong leadership and a sense of value are top drivers of employee engagement.

Reason #3: Increased Commitment

Commitment is a piece of engagement, specifically the staying-employed-and-not-quitting-or-looking-for-another-job type of commitment. A lot of people who would have considered leaving their jobs under normal circumstances had a sudden shift in priorities and were willing to stay where they were and commit to their current job. More people committing to stay, regardless of the reason, is still more people committing to stay in their job. However that commitment comes to be, increased commitment leads to increased engagement. But let me be clear here – this kind of commitment will not stick if no action is taken. This is where the incredible opportunity comes in. Companies who find ways to keep this level of engagement high will be at a competitive advantage as far as talent goes. Companies who don’t do the work now likely have a bunch of pent-up turnover about to hit them in the bottom line.

What’s this all mean?

The bad news in all of this is that none of these reasons are sustainable plans for keeping employee engagement up all by themselves. We can’t just hope that people continue to rally around some kind of singular cause that we have little control over, and we can’t expect crisis-level productivity to continue forever. We can’t expect the normal response to external factors to always positively impact engagement. We also cannot expect people to stay in their jobs forever, especially now that the US economy is opening back up and businesses are hiring again.

The good news? You have the tools you need to sustain this increase without having to rely on the reasons that got us here in the first place. It matters little what the actual reason is for this increase in engagement. Take the increase, run with it, act on it now, and maybe some of those people who would have bailed will stay with you because they’re truly, honestly engaged now. Find ways for people to rally around the common purpose that is your company’s vision instead of a global crisis. Keep communicating as well as you’ve done over the last year, even when fear has subsided. Recognize and value your team’s contributions, even when they are not having to go above and beyond every single day. Do these things because they’re the right things to do for your people and do them right now to keep their engagement up in the future.

Additional reading: How Employee Engagement Evolved in 2020

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