How the pandemic punched a hole in US employee engagement

There has been a sharp reverse in employee engagement in American companies after years of progress - there may be trouble ahead

After several years of bad news for US employers, the top-line figures on employee engagement were finally starting to shift in the right direction before the pandemic struck. According to a Gallop poll of 4,700 US employees conducted in 2019, more than a third of US workers (35 per cent) were categorised as ‘engaged’ – that is, committed to their company and enthusiastic about their work and workplace. This was the highest figure since Gallup began tracking the metric in 2000.

But Covid-19 has put paid to this progress. Gallup’s 2020 tracking of employee engagement has gone into sharp reverse, with only 31 per cent engaged this summer. It’s a number that recalls the poor results recorded by Gallup at the start of the new millennium. Back in 2000, just 26 per cent of workers were engaged and 18 per cent were ‘actively disengaged’ – psychologically absent and likely to sabotage their own company’s efforts.

Things were destined to get worse – much worse – before the tanker started to turn. In 2014, Gallup recorded just 8 per cent of the workforce as engaged, 77 per cent as not engaged, and 15 per cent as actively disengaged. This low point clearly marked a tipping point for both senior leaders and the workplace industry, which began to focus strategy and resources on creating a better experience at work for employees with a commitment to generating more engagement.

Today, those efforts lie in tatters. Gallup attributes the overall drop in employee engagement this summer to a range of factors associated with the turbulent times we are living through. These include lower engagement rates among those furloughed or laid off in the crisis; societal unrest following the killing of George Floyd, which has created disruptions within the workplace; and employers taking their eye off the ball in terms of reassurance and communicating plans to employees.

‘Lower engagement rates among those furloughed or laid off in the crisis…’

It is likely that these figures will recover once the situation around work stabilises and companies have a tighter grip on their future workplace strategies. But the issue has a direct bearing on an organisation’s financial health and profitability – disengagement costs US companies as much as US $500 billion a year in lost productivity.

Individual companies such as beverage giant Molson Coors, which dramatically reduced safety costs, and global construction equipment maker Caterpillar – which recorded large annual savings from decreased staff turnover, absenteeism and overtime – have demonstrated the financial value of investing in better employee engagement over time. Now US organisations have to put their shoulders to the wheel once again – and reaching out to an increasingly remote workforce won’t make an already difficult task any easier.

Embracing the ‘new now’

We’re living through a pivotal period for the future of workplace and there’s no silver bullet in sight, according to the latest WORKTECH webinar held on 29 September 2020. Kevin Kern of Konica Minolta and Kay Sargent of HOK, joined UnWork’s Philip Ross to debate the significance of technology in the post-Covid-19 workplace.

The webinar, entitled ‘Designing smart offices in the new era of work’, challenges the idea of the ‘new normal’, in recognising that we are living in a dynamic and consequently evolving time so we can only embrace the ‘new now’.

When asked what was the most significant workplace learning from the pandemic Sargent, HOK’s director of workplace, stated that: ‘what we’ve learnt is that everything we’ve learnt keeps changing’. As many organisations race to find the silver bullet to get employees back to the office, Sargent cautions that jumping to fast conclusions in these times is not smart. This sentiment is echoed by Kevin Kern who argued that much of the investment in digital technology as a result of the pandemic has been wasted because there was no tangible outcome.

Investment in technology and real estate (or lack thereof) has been a sticking point for many organisations who do not know how to plan for the future during these times. This prompted a discussion on the importance of service offerings, rather than physical assets. Kern and Sargent argue that ‘access is the new ownership’, as real estate and technology migrate to a service-oriented offering which can be flexible in the face on rapidly changing times.

‘We don’t want to return to an office that wasn’t working in the first place…’

The trio also challenged the idea of ‘return to the office’. ‘We don’t want to return to something that wasn’t working in the first place,’ argues Sargent. Before the pandemic, workplaces had not perfected the issues surrounding employee engagement, burn-out and integrated technology. Instead of focusing on returning to the office, organisations should instead focus on a hybrid approach to the future of working that includes people working from home, third spaces and centralised workplaces. View the WORKTECH webinar here:

Designing to enhance wellbeing

Finally, don’t miss out on our next live WORKTECH webinar which takes place on 1 October 2020, featuring Wouter Boxhoorn of Signify and biophilic design expert Oliver Heath in conversation with Jeremy Myerson of WORKTECH Academy. As offices are readied for the eventual return to work, how can we improve experience to create workspaces that enhance wellbeing and performance? Our expert panel will explore the advantages of a human-centric approach to workplace design in the post-Covid era. This webinar will showcase NatureConnect, the latest immersive technology innovation from Signify which brings the benefits of natural light indoors. Find more details and registration here.

In our WORKTECH Wednesday Briefings, we reach out to our 10,000-plus Academy members, WORKTECH attendees, speakers, partners and sponsors while WORKTECH’s professional live conference series paused due to the coronavirus pandemic. This edition is posted 30 September 2020.
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