Employee engagement

How Employee Engagement Has Changed in 2020

Ben Travis
October 15, 2020
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2020 has changed just about everything, especially employee engagement. With that in mind, we fielded our annual Employee Engagement & Workplace Report this year and uncovered some remarkable insights and trends.

Workplaces have faced the powerful effects of a global pandemic, racial injustice, economic uncertainty, and even political anxieties. Now, those same workplaces are transforming and adapting at breakneck speeds, and we wanted to know just how this year has impacted employee engagement.

By reviewing evidence from our research, we identified four key themes that modern workplaces must embrace to successfully engage their teams:

In addition, we analyzed responses around how organizations have handled COVID-19, remote work trends, and ways leaders can successfully improve engagement.

Now, let’s start with a quick summary of overall employee engagement in 2020.

Are you more of an audio/visual learner? Watch Ben and Abby Feinstein, Senior Strategist at Bulldog Drummond, discuss employee engagement research and insights in this recording!

Employee Engagement in 2020

Notably, we found that individuals who are still employed this year are just as engaged, if not more engaged now as they were last year. Our research in 2019 found that 29% of employees were Highly Engaged, the same percentage as this year. However, the most profound shift occurred in another group.

Employees who were Actively Disengaged actually decreased from 16% in 2019 to 12% this year! Many workers are struggling, as we’ll discuss shortly, but engagement levels are slightly more optimistic than last year. The topic of employee engagement has also been a top priority for most people leaders this year.

When asked about how often their employers measured employee engagement, about a third of respondents indicated monthly or more frequently, a sharp increase from last year. It seems that major events this year have catalyzed the trend of timely employee engagement measurement, forcing leaders to act on that data and break new ground. Moreover, it seems like that strategy is paying off. Despite ongoing challenges including heightened stress levels, moving to remote work, and general unpredictability, most organizations have been able to keep their teams engaged at a similar level to last year.

However, there are still plenty of challenges to face in the coming months, and organizations looking to thrive in the near future will need to act on four key areas.

1. Foster human connections

Throughout our research, a clear theme was the need for human connection. Ironically, we live in the age of social distancing yet need to connect with one another more than ever.

Many organizations are stepping up to the plate when it comes to adopting the right technology and accommodating change in business models. Video chat platforms are seeing usage at all-time highs, and new ways of collaborating are sprouting up almost daily. Nonetheless, it’s uniquely challenging to keep up professional relationships and communicate as effectively as we used to. Evidence from our research strongly indicates the need for leaders to foster human connections.

Chief among these areas is transparency. Keeping employees abreast of what’s happening not only facilitates trust but reduces uncertainty in a time when there’s...well...a great deal of that.

Highly Engaged employees are 2.1 times more likely to work for a transparent organization than Actively Disengaged employees.

But what does a transparent organization look like?

At Bonusly, we’ve built on our Default to Transparency company value to include more frequent and updated methods of communication. We realized a stronger need for leadership to communicate as situations changed rapidly, so we began hosting regular AMAs from leadership, invested in more collaboration technology, and shared processes more widely.

Related to transparency is feedback. Simply put, you can’t have engagement without feedback, including both taking and giving it. Organizations should regularly solicit feedback from their employees, making it easy and safe for individuals to share their thoughts. It also requires leadership to act on that feedback. By listening to feedback, many organizations have not only increased engagement but successfully pivoted business models and discovered new business opportunities.

Human connection also requires fun! And engaged teams are fun teams. Our research shows that 90% of Highly Engaged employees say they work on a fun team compared with only 37% of Actively Disengaged employees. Having fun at work produces benefits like increasing innovation and generally lifting morale, and it’s especially needed in times like these.

When looking at human connection trends, we observed a significant shift around employees giving back. Compared to 2019, we found that 30% more employees worked on a team that organized volunteer opportunities this year. Even in challenging time (and maybe even because of them), generosity has increased. Interestingly, we found a similar behavioral shift in employee charitable giving via Bonusly when comparing rewards redemption data before and after COVID-19.

Finally, business leaders must cultivate a meaningful environment for human connections to flourish. Employees need to feel connected with those impacted by their work. Employees in 2020 are 29% more more likely to be satisfied with their financial compensation than a year ago. There may be elements of survivorship bias at play considering the current unemployment rate, but it’s notable that at the same time, many more employees are actively looking for another job compared to last year. Clearly, extrinsic motivation only goes so far.

For people to be fully engaged, they need to be connected to the impact their work creates, not only within the company but to all stakeholders. In fact, 88% of Highly Engaged employees are regularly shown how their work contributes to the larger purpose of their organization as opposed to only 37% of Actively Disengaged.

How does your work make a difference?

2. Address anxiety

2020 has been a stressful year!

Unsurprisingly, anxiety is a more potent challenge for employees than it’s been in the past. We’re all dealing with new ways of working, all while caring for loved ones and dealing with our own concerns. Compared to last year, the proportion of employees who felt overwhelmed with their work and anxious at work has increased substantially (+34% and +20%, respectively).

Employers who successfully engage their teams prioritize wellness. And when we say wellness, that means both physical and mental wellness.

Physical wellness appears to have a positive correlation to employee engagement, but mental wellness seems to have a much stronger relationship. Of all the factors we measured this year, one stood out as the most powerful indicator of engagement, one that even caught our team off-guard: the open discussion of anxiety and stress.

Highly Engaged employees are 3.2 times more likely to be on a team that encourages open discussion of anxiety and stress at work than Actively Disengaged employees.

To work on a true team, and to feel a sense of belonging, employees need to be able to bring their whole selves to work. Many of our colleagues are working through difficult challenges at home or work, and being able to voice those struggles can be incredibly helpful. Employers can address this by offering a wellness program that offers open discussion about mindfulness, affordable therapy through health benefits (much of it online), and reinforcing a psychologically safe workplace.

If you haven’t noticed already, now’s the time to address anxiety at your organization. Facilitate healthy discussions around anxiety, and consider bringing in outside help if you’re not equipped to do so internally. Reevaluate your health benefits, and see if they need to be updated. Consider encouraging your team to follow mindfulness practices through yoga or meditation tools like Headspace, which are offering meditations for everyone.

Don’t have a wellness program? You should. 79% of highly engaged employees reported having an employee wellness program at their workplace.

Fortunately, many employees do feel cared for at work what it comes to the global pandemic. Only 6% of employees don’t feel confident in their organization’s handling of COVID-19. Many teams acted quickly, moving to remote work or making other accommodations to their teams, like more flexible scheduling. Highly Engaged employees were 2.5 times more likely to feel confident in their organization’s handling of COVID-19 compared to Actively Disengaged employees.

As we face continued challenges in the next year, it’s imperative that organizations address anxiety and encourage a healthy lifestyle.

3. Embrace peer recognition

When’s the last time you were appreciated at work?

Many of us are navigating uncharted waters while at the same time exceeding expectations. All this is happening while anxiety as at record levels. So how do leaders support and encourage their employees in this environment? A huge part of of this comes from recognition.

We define employee recognition as the open acknowledgment and expressed appreciation for employees’ contributions to their organization, and recognition from peers is particularly powerful.

Highly Engaged employees are 2.6 times more likely to work in organizations with a peer employee recognition program than Actively Disengaged employees.

It’s much easier for employees to continue down unknown paths when they’re acknowledged for their contributions, working together toward a worthy cause. 86% of Highly Engaged employees were recognized the last time they went above and beyond at work compared to only 31% of Actively Disengaged employees.

Looking deeper, pairing recognition with rewards be extremely powerful.

In reviewing activity on our own recognition solution, we found that rewards with real-world value work best. While teams might initially get excited about recognizing each other by collecting digital badges or watching a leaderboard, that excitement wanes after a few months. However, we’ve seen sustained participation when users recognized each other with points that were assigned monetary value that could then be exchanged for meaningful rewards.

Through our research, we found that most employees prefer cash or gift cards as top rewards, though having flexible choices may be the most important element of rewards.

4. Be flexible and adapt

Nearly every organization has been strongly affected by the global events of 2020. Whole business models have been upended, while new industries are flourishing like never before. Distilleries have pivoted to making hand sanitizer, sports equipment manufacturers are now making face shields, and restaurants are selling groceries.

Radical shifts in our society and they way we do work require flexibility and adaptability. Organizations who can ride the waves of change instead of being overpowered are the ones who’ll thrive.

Highly Engaged employees are 2.6 times more likely to work for an organization that offers a home office budget than Actively Disengaged employees.

While about half of employees are either back at work or plan to be by the end of the year, many won’t return until next year, 2022, or...ever. Last year, 27% of employees indicated working remotely at least half of the time. This year, that’s grown to 61% of employees!

Even giants like Microsoft are now letting more employees work from home permanently. This will have huge implications for businesses, and many are realizing that hybrid models, flexible schedules, and even remote-only workforces are feasible.

While most businesses will likely return to physical workplaces in some capacity, things won’t look the same as they used to. Many organizations now require new safety protocols, offer more support for remote working, and allow for additional time off to address non-work needs. We see this trend continuing, and when employees are better able to adapt to changes with support from their employer, that manifests itself in higher engagement levels.

Employee Engagement Opportunity Awaits

We live in...you guessed it, unprecedented times. While it’s healthy to acknowledge the challenges we all face, it’s also important to understand the opportunity we have to positively impact employee engagement through factors we can control.

It’s easy to focus on the negative, but organizations should position themselves to thrive, even in 2020. By fostering human connections, addressing anxiety, embracing peer recognition, and being flexible and adaptable, it’s possible to improve employee engagement and set your team up for long-term success.

Let’s learn from the challenges we face to come together and build a better future.

To learn more about Bonusly’s 2020 Employee Engagement and Modern Workplace report, download it here.

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