I’ve been working as a consultant in the employee engagement space for over 20 years. Having just completed the analysis and write-up for our 2022 State of Engagement white paper, I’ve been doing some reflecting on what we learned and the broader themes I’ve observed over time. Here are a few thoughts I want to share.
Historically Newmeasures has provided a rolling engagement survey benchmark that aggregated data across several years (as do many survey vendors). The benefit of this approach is it increases the number of companies included in the pool of benchmark data. Pre-COVID, this was a great strategy. As with many things in life, the pandemic changed that. When we isolated the years of 2019, 2020, and 2021 the differences in employee perceptions of the work experience were striking.
As you might imagine, each of these years was unique. Combining data across them into one normative view washed out the story of the sudden change, the uncertainty, the innovation, the re-evaluating, and re-calibrating. When looking at the data, the pace of the change in the world and the different waves we’ve been riding are undeniable. We all know that we are in a time of rapid change (it is impacting every single one of us on a soul level), but to see it reflected in employee feedback from hundreds of organizations is unlike anything I’ve seen in my career. The work experience is evolving at record pace, and we are all going through it together.
The second point that got my attention was the change in engagement drivers. Each year we look at the top drivers of employee engagement. These are the topics that are most highly correlated with engagement. We recommend organizations put effort into these areas to improve engagement overall. Five years ago, most organizations were not even asking questions about employee well-being and belonging on their surveys. In 2021, these topics were top drivers of employee engagement. I find it fascinating that we are more focused on human connection and mental health at a time when we are more physically separated and stressed out than ever. Is that because we have no other choice? Or are we really starting to embrace the fact that environments that allow employees to be healthy, to be themselves, and to be whole, actually make good business sense? Maybe it doesn’t matter why. Maybe what matters is that in going through a shared tragedy, we are collectively reminded that we are humans first. Our productivity, status, and material wealth only get us so far in the grand scheme of things.
When I looked at our employee feedback data on retention, I saw that employers that make work worthwhile (which I define as: time at work is well spent because it offers me a sense of meaning, connection, and/or the opportunity to contribute) are the ones who earn real loyalty, commitment, and effort. As a society, employees are saying it is time to break down structures that haven’t been working and build new ones that elevate each of us, so we thrive collectively and unlock our own unique potential.
Looking at 2022 and the years ahead, there is no doubt there is more change in front of us. We aren’t done figuring out the new systems. Treating employees as “human” first isn’t going anywhere any time soon (or hopefully ever). So how can organizations be prepared to navigate the challenges we may not yet even be able to imagine? How do we intentionally invent new ways of enriching the employee experience while at the same time meeting other organizational goals around customers, profitability, and stewardship?
The only answer I can come up with is that we listen. Not only do we listen, but we prioritize getting really good at listening. We get good at listening when things are calm and steady, and we are poised and ready to listen when the curve balls come. When the unexpected happens, we need to be ready to check in and ask employees what they need and harness their ideas to help us innovate. We listen for themes, and we listen to individuals. We listen to know and celebrate what’s going well. We ask, we fine tune, and repeat.
The last three years have taught all of us that change is inevitable. We can’t go back to how things were. Employees are voting for employers who value the human experience with their loyalty. And more change is on the horizon… so we navigate by listening. We are more adaptable, creative, compassionate and powerful when we first listen. When we start there, we can solve any problem.