Employee Engagement

New issues that will impact employee engagement in 2021

As usual around this time of year, there are a lot of articles out there predicting the big areas where HR needs to focus its efforts this year. Infinite mentions of remote working, company culture, wellbeing, and so on have flooded blogs and news outlets. Ultimately though, while there are a lot of new things HR will have to contend with this year, from vaccine compliance to returns to the office, employee engagement has remained a pretty unyielding opponent.

While engagement did see a brief bump around the start of the pandemic as many employers stepped up their efforts amidst employees transitioning to working from home, it dropped back down to standard levels within a few months. The percentage of employees who are engaged has been simmering between the mid-20s and mid-30s for decades now; having only a quarter to a third of employees engaged costs U.S. companies hundreds of billions of dollars per year. As we dive deeper into what people insist on calling ‘the new normal’, it’s time to imagine a new normal for employee engagement levels as well.

Historical reasons for employee disengagement

Disengagement stems from a number of different sources, some of which can be influenced by employers, while others are simply a matter of preference. For instance, if an employee has little to no interest in what they do, or considers their job simply a necessary evil, few efforts by the employer will make a substantive difference. On the other hand, for employees who do care in some regard about their work, having an employer show that they care in return can go a long way toward boosting engagement.

Some of the ongoing issues that drive disengagement include:

  1. Toxic managers. According to SHRM, 6 out of 10 employees say that their manager is the reason they left their organization. Managers who are unclear, unkind, or otherwise demotivating play a key role in driving disengagement. Improving your manager training programs can help turn this problem around.  Efforts could focus on strengthening communication, increasing feedback, and boosting recognition to start.
  2. Dead-end roles. Failing to provide learning and development opportunities and/or career ladders is a grave mistake in today’s economy. Employees with no incentive to try their best, and no vision of their future with the organization, are at extremely high risk of disengagement and turnover. Ensure that your team members understand how they can grow with the company, and offer ways to expand and improve their skills.
  3. Insufficient compensation. Employees who aren’t compensated adequately with salary, benefits, and company culture are unlikely to be engaged. Not receiving sufficient rewards for the time and effort they expend on the company’s behalf will only lead to resentment and retention issues. Even if you can’t provide as compelling of a compensation package as some competitors, you can make up for it in other ways through wellbeing support and a positive work environment.
New concerns that will impact employee engagement this year

While the usual suspects will undoubtedly continue to stymie efforts to increase employee engagement in 2021, there are also a few new potential culprits on the scene. Due to the pandemic and all of the issues that accompany it, both employees and employers are facing some serious new challenges. Among them:

  1. Health & safety. More than any other time in recent history, employers across industries will have to make serious accommodations within their workplaces to ensure the health and safety of all employees. Between requiring mask wearing and social distancing, adequately sanitizing surfaces, executing contact tracing and office shutdowns, etc., there’s a lot to consider. Ultimately though, no employee will remain loyal and engaged while working for an employer that doesn’t prioritize their health and safety. Make sure you have clear policies in place, stay up-to-date on all recommendations, and ask your employees early and often how you can make them feel more comfortable and protected amidst the ongoing public health crisis.
  2. Burnout & PTO. Burnout is a serious concern for employees who have been under outsize amounts of stress and working longer hours than ever with no vacations to look forward to during the past year. Ensuring that employees are able to take time off when they need it, and that they have the supports they need in the face of escalating household responsibilities combined with increased work expectations will be critical to keeping employees happy and refreshed. Consider implementing mandatory minimums for paid time off, and step up your benefits around child and elder care, as well as healthcare and sick time.
  3. Flexible working. Not everyone will be comfortable or ready to go back to the office at the same time. Between the staggered vaccine rollout, different family structures, and varied perspectives on virus safety itself, employees will need a menu of options to ensure they feel respected and supported through any office return process. Employees forced to return under conditions that make them feel rushed and/or anxious will not be able to focus on their work and will be much more likely to leave. Additionally, not enabling employees to work schedules that are conducive to meeting their new responsibilities due to the pandemic will further reduce engagement.

A ‘new normal’ requires a new approach to employee engagement. There are many new issues and concerns to take into account when mapping out an employee engagement strategy for 2021. We’ve listed some of them above, but as always, it’s crucial that you solicit input from your employees early and often. If you could use a better way to poll employees, keep everyone on the same page, and strengthen company culture no matter where employees work, come visit us at or reach out directly to