Employee Engagement Trends in 2021

EPISODE 59 | Guest: Debbie DeWitt, marketing & communications manager for Visix, Inc.

Employee engagement has been greatly affected by the upheavals of 2020. Internal Communications, Human Resources, the C-suite, managers and workers are all adjusting to the new work-from-home culture, the technology that makes it possible and the challenges of communicating remotely.

In this episode, we discuss employee engagement trends highlighted in a new Gallup report. We cover where organizations are doing better than before, and where there’s still work to be done, and take a look at some of the reasons why the numbers are what they are.

  • Hear the latest stats for engaged and unengaged employees
  • Discover how HR and IC are adapting to the new normal
  • Understand the risks of disengagement and burnout
  • Learn why meaningful feedback and wellbeing are top priorities
  • Explore how the C-suite and managers fit into engagement

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Want more tips on communications for employee engagement? Download our Masterclass Guide 2: Digital Signage Communications Planning


Derek DeWitt: An organization is more than the sum of its parts. As we say frequently here, it’s made up of people and those people need direction, transparency, connection and motivation. We’ve talked quite a bit before about employee engagement trends and how they affect productivity, morale, and retention, as well as health, safety, customer satisfaction, and even the bottom line. It’s no surprise that if your employees aren’t engaged, then your organization suffers, and your offering suffers.

So today we’re going to talk about employee engagement trends in the year 2021 with Debbie DeWitt, marketing communications manager for Visix. Hi Deb!

Debbie DeWitt: Hi, Derek.

Derek DeWitt: How are you?

Debbie DeWitt: I’m excellent. How are you?

Derek DeWitt: Excellent. I like to thank Debbie for talking to me today, and I’d like to thank all of you for listening.

Okay, Debbie. So I come armed and prepared with statistics.

Debbie DeWitt: Excellent.

Derek DeWitt: Coming out my nose. So just in February of this year, Gallup published an article titled U.S. Employee Engagement Rises Following Wild 2020, which is quite a title.

Debbie DeWitt: I know, wild!

Derek DeWitt: Wild!

Debbie DeWitt: It was a wild year.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah. What they did is they looked into employee engagement after the crazy year of lockdown and not lockdown and all that kind of crazy stuff going on. There’s good news and bad news. So I’m going to hit you with some numbers and you tell me what you think about those.

Debbie DeWitt: That sounds perfect.

Derek DeWitt: I like that. So, Gallup asked employees how engaged they were. A record high of 39% said that they are engaged.

Debbie DeWitt: That’s awesome.

Derek DeWitt: What that means is they’re highly involved in the workplace and the work and the organization, or they’re enthusiastic about it, or they’re committed to it.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. That’s wonderful. Employee engagement is always the stat that people want to know because they know that it’s tied to so many indicators of performance of a company. I think, that rise, a lot of it’s because as the hybrid workplace or the people working from home got more prevalent in 2020, obviously that shifted a huge focus onto internal communications.

Derek DeWitt: Sure! Sure, sure, sure.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. You could no longer just rely on water coolers and walking around or in-person meetings. So, what’s pretty cool is there’ve been some studies from internal communications organizations, and they’re saying that the long awaited “seat at the table” (in air quotes) that communicators talk about for a long time, they’re finally getting that; they’re actually being involved in strategic decisions.

Derek DeWitt: So, what you’re saying is employees are getting more input into the day-to-day workings of how things are done.

Debbie DeWitt: Somewhat that, but mainly mean like your internal communications department.

Derek DeWitt: Ah, okay.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. Yeah. And a lot of this is they’re starting to work more hand in hand with HR. HR has typically been the one that is in charge of employee engagement or tracking that, but they understand that the two have to work together. HR might track it, come up with some programs, but internal communications is the one who has to get it out there. And obviously with the challenges and opportunities that 2020 presented, internal comms has had to change the way they do things.

Derek DeWitt: Sure. Well, there’s a lot of tech. I mean a lot of videoconferencing, a lot of chat apps, a lot of people moving over to platforms like Microsoft Teams.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah, absolutely. So, we’ve not only seen more focus on engagement but new tools, new techniques, new messaging, and really just a focus on it. Because obviously, it seems odd because you needed to be communicating with your employees before they were working from home, but for some reason, by taking them out of the physical space, it really shone a spotlight on that need.

Derek DeWitt: Isn’t that funny? You would think that… because the common wisdom is always, well if people work from home, they won’t really work. But we know that that’s not the case. In fact, people work more. And so it’s kind of one of those weird counterintuitive things that it’s not out of sight, out of mind; it’s quite the opposite. I think part of that might be because people, because they’re working remotely, crave that connection. They want to check in more and communicate with their colleagues more.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah, absolutely. And the fact is, by going to more digital communications, we’re mirroring what people do in life. You know, we all use social media, we all use chat. We all use, you know, all these different apps in our social lives or our personal lives. So of course, by using those mediums for your business communications, it just makes sense and people are comfortable with it.

Derek DeWitt: Okay. So that’s 39% say they’re actively engaged. 14% say they are actively disengaged. And this is actually a 1% increase from 2019. So, if they’re actively disengaged, that means that they really couldn’t give a toss. They just don’t care. They show up to work or they do their tasks because it’s money and that’s all they care about.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah, and the real danger is… Gallup actually defines this as people who have a miserable work experience, but more importantly, they spread that misery.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah. The Eeyore Syndrome.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. They’re actively disengaged. They’re not just disengaged, they’re the opposite of an employee advocate. They are actually spreading the woe.

Derek DeWitt: This place stinks, man!

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. And I’m actually surprised and delighted (if I can say that) by only a 1% increase, because with that lack of connection, with that lack of in-person communications, only a 1% increase in active disengagement is actually pretty good with the crazy year that we had in 2020.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah, that’s true. Okay. So only 14% are actively disengaged. However (and that seems like a small number) however, keep in mind that, like Debbie said, these are actively disengaged people spreading the poison of their disenfranchisement. 39% is a record high of people actively engaged. Though, that’s not even 50%, and it’s not even the largest number.

What that means, if you add all that up, is that 47% of your employees are just not engaged. They don’t hate it, but they’re also not actively engaged. That’s the biggest number of people so far. So I think saying 39%, wow that’s great, except it’s not great; it’s not a great number.

Debbie DeWitt: No, it’s not. I mean, this is people who are, I’ll do my tasks, but I’m not passionate at all about my work or this place or these people. And you know, 47% still not being engaged, and then you add that 14% who are actively disengaged, is a little disheartening because employee engagement has been a buzzword and a focus for almost a decade now, maybe.

Derek DeWitt: I think more than that.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. I mean, progressive companies are paying very close attention to this. So if you’re looking at over 50% of your workforce is not engaged or worse then you’ve got a lot of work to do. Because we know, engagement leads to improvement in productivity, customer satisfaction, you know, lower absenteeism, more employee retention, all of these things that you need to make your organization successful. So, this is where communications has to focus.

Derek DeWitt: I agree. So Gallup got pretty granular with what they were looking at, the kinds of questions that they asked. A lot of the things they talked about dealt with the pandemic, but those trends are likely to continue as the work-from-home and hybrid office culture really takes off in the future.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah, absolutely. And very quickly I do just want to say, we’re just talking about some of the highlights. I absolutely recommend anyone who is interested in employee engagement, go out to Gallup. We’ll have links in our transcript. You should read this full report. There is so much more information than what we’re touching on today. I hate using this word, but this is the “new normal”. But it’s just the normal. We’ve been going this way for a while now.

Derek DeWitt: It’s not new anymore. It’s just normal.

Debbie DeWitt: Right. It’s been over a year guys. It’s the normal. And we’ve been going this way for a long time. Most places have had some people working from home at least part-time and we expect that that’ll just continue.

Derek DeWitt: Okay. So the first thing they say is that many employees are saying that they are receiving more feedback than they received in the past. 45% of employees in 2020 say that they have gotten feedback from their manager either a few times a week, or even on a daily basis. 26% from the previous year (2019). That’s a marked increase.

Debbie DeWitt: It is. It’s great that we’re getting more feedback. I have a feeling the sort of, we’ll call it the Zoom culture or the Teams culture, is helping with that, because since people aren’t walking around seeing each other in offices, managers are reaching out more often.

But I will say unfortunately only 28% of those strongly agreed that they received meaningful feedback. That’s up like 19% from 2019. But you know, that’s a problem because just getting feedback, but it’s not meaningful. Meaning just saying, good job, keep going…

Derek DeWitt: I see you. You exist. Oh, why thank you.

Debbie DeWitt: Right. I mean, people need to know what you expect of them. They need to know their progress against goals. They need to have actionable feedback. You know, and maybe that is, you’re doing great keep going, but what does that mean? I’m doing great. I’m on track, you know, I’m ahead of the game.

So the key here is meaningful and you need to use metrics, KPIs, things like that. I’m not saying every day that you talk to an employee you have to give them some sort of TPS report, but it is a good idea to make sure when you have those conversations, you’re giving them something relevant, something actionable.

Derek DeWitt: The hybrid employee, the people who work sometimes in the office and sometimes from home, they say that their engagement has improved pretty much overall. Obviously, we did have people who worked from home at least one or two days a week before 2020 and the pandemic. And those people say that they have also become slightly more engaged. I don’t know if it’s because we’re all in the same boat or what the deal is, but in the second half of the year, it actually jumped two percentage points (which seems negligible, but it’s not insignificant in a large company) to 43%.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah, no. And again, I think that’s the efforts that internal communications and human resources have been making. I think the fact is, we’ve concentrated more on outreach, on making people feel connected on making sure they have more information because you can’t just rely on a ton of email, you know? And so I think this goes back to the fact that we’ve realized people working from home can be engaged and we’re finding the tools that they prefer. I think that’s another big thing. We’re finding out, hey, we’ve actually done surveys and, for example, 20% of our employees want to get information from the intranet, the rest of them would prefer a group chat or some other means of communication.

Derek DeWitt: Passenger pigeon!

Debbie DeWitt: Right! So…

Derek DeWitt: Right! She says, right.

Debbie DeWitt: I’m so agreeable! No, not passenger pigeon. But maybe, maybe. I don’t know, is that a good idea in a plague? I don’t know.

But yeah, I mean, this isn’t going away. We’ve been moving to remote work for years. They also said that 56% of workers continue to work remotely (as of this recording). And 44% of them have said, I like that better, I don’t want to go back.

But there’s still 39% of people who do want to go back to the office at least part of the time. So, we can’t ditch that digital signage yet. Because the biggest thing going forward is going to make sure you’re consistent across these platforms. As you have a more hybrid workforce, you have to make sure that the people in the office and out of the office all have the same information at the same time. But the tricky part is deliver that in the way that they want to get it.

Derek DeWitt: However, because studies have shown that people who work exclusively from home or work full-time from home, at least in the last year, tend to work longer hours (you know, for whatever reason), more people are reporting burnout. In 2019, 18% of people who worked all the time from home and said that they often or always felt burnout. Whereas in 2020, that number has jumped by 11% to 29%. That’s not awesome. What’s going on there?

Debbie DeWitt: No. And comparatively, in 2019, those who work from home all the time had lower burnout than those who did just some of the time. And it flipped. So now the people who are working from home all the time have higher burnout than those who are just doing the hybrid thing and working sometimes at home, sometimes at the office.

Derek DeWitt: Do you think that that’s because like the home environment so stressful? Because it’s not just working from home, it’s also, the kids are home and the dog needs to be walked and you know, I had three bourbons for lunch or whatever the deal is. Are there non-organizational factors?

Debbie DeWitt: I think it’s definitely the bourbon. But no, I mean, the thing about this study is this isn’t just going year to year. 2020 is a standout. In America, we not only had COVID-19, we had elections, we had protests. It was a stressful year. So people working from home were dealing with a lot of things that… You know, maybe if they do, I don’t know, say you’ll see a 2022 versus 2023 study, you may not see some of these sweeps.

But it does make sense. I think it’s not only working from home. People do tend to blur home and work hours. They don’t tend to be as rigid. They don’t tend to take as many breaks or a dedicated lunch break.

But I think the other thing, and this is very unfortunate, is there was a downscaling. In a lot of organizations because of the economic environment, they had to scale down their workforce. So those who are still working are also being asked to do more. So, since quite a few people were working from home and you add in the factor that, you know, you’re having to help educate your kids and make sure they’re doing their remote learning and you’ve got…

Derek DeWitt: And now you’ve got Joseph’s job because he’s gone. And so you’ve got all this, like there’s a ton of stuff to do, right?

Debbie DeWitt: Right, exactly. And this is really important for HR and communications to keep in mind. So, you’re already dealing with larger workloads in some cases, or at least, you know, longer work hours. So, you don’t want to add to that by just bombarding people with too many communications.

We all talk about information overload in life with social media and the news and TV and blah, blah, blah. The same thing can happen at work. Just because people are remote does not mean you need to blast them with, you know, 10 different things a day.

I think that going forward, hopefully by now those learning pains, those growing pains, learning how to set up your home office, being able to VPN into your, you know, company’s servers, being able to master Teams, being able to master Zoom, Slack, whatever you’re using, understanding videoconferencing, etiquette, you know, these are all things that, that added stress. And I think communications probably were kind of rapid fire. Obviously COVID safety, other things, you know, policies changing.

But by now, and looking at 2021 (there are some other surveys I’ve looked at), there are a lot of companies that now have a really good change management plan in place. They’ve already implemented a lot of it. And so going forward, hopefully that burnout subsides. And a lot of that is just communicators, just staggering communications, so that people aren’t overloaded on top of the, you know, 14 tasks and three online meetings they have to do each day.

And keep in mind, I’m not just talking about email though. Communicators are using other things. I mean, even digital signage lets you send messages out to intranets and things. So you’ve got email, you’ve got intranet posts going on. Some people are using things like SharePoint, or project management, collaboration platforms, and they’re getting messages on there. They’re also getting chats. So, all of those things are communications. So imagine that if there’s something new on each one of those things each day, you might have four to six platforms with information. So I mean, hopefully it’s one message going to all of those places. So that it really has impact, and they can actually digest and understand it and react to it, versus I’ve got something different on six different platforms that I need to look at in addition to my normal email log.

Derek DeWitt: Thus, the burnout. So obviously, pandemic: people are worried about health, that’s why everybody’s staying home. Gallup said that 47% of employees strongly agreed that the organization cares about their overall wellbeing. Which is again, less than 50%, but it’s not a terrible number.

Debbie DeWitt: That’s actually a pretty strong showing. You know, there’s agree, somewhat agree, all of that. So that’s actually a pretty strong showing for strongly agree.

Derek DeWitt: And when it came to communicating the organization’s plan of action in response to COVID-19, that number is the same. 47% said, yes, they strongly agree that the organization did a good job and the same number for their supervisor kept them well-informed. And a little higher, 51%, said that they felt that they were well-prepared to do their jobs from home. Which is good news, good job organizations!

Debbie DeWitt: It is. It’s great. And you know, Gallup says basically, even if your workers are engaged, they’re at risk. They use the term “at risk” if wellbeing is low. So wellbeing is at the top of every chart. When you look at internal communication studies that say, what are you focusing on this year? Hey communicators, what are you doing? Wellbeing is at the top of every list. Because we’ve all learned through this year. We’ve talked about the burnout. You know, we know about obviously COVID, there’s also the societal stresses out there. So, wellbeing is very high priority. And engaged workers being at risk, well they’re at risk of burnout, they’re at risk of leaving your company.

Derek DeWitt: Or shifting from I’m engaged or highly engaged to, I’m not engaged or actively disengaged, simply because this process is stressing me out.

Debbie DeWitt: Right. And I mean, there’s obviously, they’re at risk in terms of health, not the pandemic, but just stress…

Derek DeWitt: Right. I mean, like their arms aren’t going to fall off or anything, but you know…

Debbie DeWitt: Who knows, that could be a new variant.

Derek DeWitt: Let’s hope not. And things aren’t just static. I mean, new employees are going to be hired and onboarded and things are going to continue like they always have, whether people working from home or not, whether they’re lockdowns or not. And the bulk of those employees today are going to be millennials. Millennials have been talking about this stuff since the get go, since they were 16, 17, 18 years old. Wellbeing, work-life balance, all of this stuff. And while, in the early days of millennials entering the workforce, there was a tendency to sort of poopoo this, it turns out that they were right. We absolutely should listen to them.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. I mean, we’ve talked about millennials a lot on here but this is just the future. And Human Resources has already adapted to this. But it kind of comes down to, I mean, you’re seeing a lot of different content focus and strategic focus on wellbeing, on diversity, inclusion, equity. These are important things, they’re going to remain important things and before you can even engage an employee, you have to attract them. You have to onboard them. And it kind of boils down to, if you want people to care about your company, you have to show that the company cares about them.

So, I would say, as internal communications professionals, wellbeing needs to be wrapped into all of your strategic communications. I would say that wellbeing has to be wrapped into your content, your messaging. As simple as, like you said, work-life balance tips, working from home tips, even ergonomics for your home office.

I saw something recently that I really loved, and I can’t remember which company did it, but someone has declared Zoom-free Fridays as a wellbeing initiative. (It was Citigroup.) Because they say people are getting so burned out on videoconferencing that they’re like, you know, what, take Fridays off. It’s no longer enough to say, it’s okay if you’re wearing pajama bottoms. They’re like, you know what, no more videoconferencing; give everybody at least one day without having to be on screen. So yeah, wellbeing is going to continue to be a priority.

Derek DeWitt: Now here we are. We’re talking about the little guy, but managers are people, too. And it turns out that manager engagement has decreased very slightly over the last year. In 2019, Gallup said manager engagement was 34%, which isn’t awesome. And it dropped down to 33% in 2020. So, the managers are actually feeling the brunt of all this much more than the people they’re managing.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. And this is huge, because obviously managers affect the team engagement. Like Gallop mentioned, it’s like 70% of the variance in team engagement comes from managers. You know, they’re the ones who are keeping their employees informed about what’s going on in the organization, setting priorities, providing that meaningful feedback and also tracking, you know, progress and accountability.

And again, I would say that burnout is coming from having a more dispersed workforce. You can’t just have those one-on-one conversations maybe. But it’s also about workload. I mean, because either you can have someone who quite frankly just has more work because they’ve taken on more employees or more responsibility, but you also…

Derek DeWitt: Or they’ve been given an extra department that they didn’t have in 2019.

Debbie DeWitt: Right. But without that, you’re still talking about (and this I think applies to every employee) you’re talking about that experience of having to learn the entire work-from-home culture. Not only from the technology, but that culture. It is, when am I going to start, when am I going to stop, what kind of breaks will I take? Am I going to have a physical routine to break from work so that my mind can leave work and go back to life? Things like that.

Derek DeWitt: Right. And I would guess, too, that those employees who, before 2020, were already working, at least part-time, from home, many of them were not managers. So this is brand new for a lot of them. They’re like, what, how does this work? What do you do?

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. Yeah. I think that’s true. And it’s so essential to engage your managers. Like you said, don’t forget about the managers. I think that it starts at the C-suite level, and C-suites are talking about internal communications. This isn’t just HR and the communications or marketing department who are doing this. Your chief executives all are aware that engagement is huge now. So, they’re focused on it.

But what happens is, those meetings tend to focus on how do we reach the frontline workers, and you can’t skip that, that manager level. You know, no matter how many, if they’re middle managers or whatever levels there are, they also need direction. They also need meaningful feedback. You know, they need recognition. They need TLC.

Because here’s the thing, you know, it’s kind of like happy cows make happy milk. Well, happy managers help you build a happy team. You need your manager to be as passionate about their work and be an employee advocate first. And then that can trickle down to the team. How can they engage people if they’re not being engaged themselves?

Derek DeWitt: So, engagement is not just important because that’s what people who write blogs and have podcasts say. It really is. It’s like the organization has to be committed to it because that’s what’s going to get you through.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. We were talking about communications in this podcast, but the fact is engagement is an organic, cultural thing that needs to be in every aspect of a business from the top level, all the way down to the bottom level. A lot of this is it’s not just, hey, the C-suite needs to engage managers who need to engage employees. The employees, you know, there’s peer-to-peer engagement. So it’s not a thing. It’s not a task list. You know?

Derek DeWitt: Well, I was going to say, it needs to be sincere. Not just sound sincere. It needs to sound natural, and it needs to sound sincere because it needs to be sincere. And if that means you need to adjust your mindset, then adjust your mindset.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. A lot of people might have an engagement plan, but it’s not a means to an end. It is a constant organic process. You’re supporting engagement, you’re not creating it. You know what I mean? If that makes any sense. You are taking this thing that already exists (hopefully at least somewhat), and you’re just making sure that that is pervasive in every aspect of the company or school or wherever.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah. I think that’s a very key point, is that this is not just a one and done kind of a thing. This is a process. Let’s call it engagementing.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah, basically this is about evolution. There is no finish date on this task.

Derek DeWitt: Engagement is not just important, it is vital that it be pushed to the forefront and organizations really take some time to evaluate what they’re doing and how they’re getting their people engaged at all levels, from the C-suite all the way down to the frontline worker. And if you deal with customers or clients, it’s going to filter into your communications and relationships with them as well.

I’d like to thank Debbie for talking to me today. Thanks Deb. Pretty, pretty interesting stuff.

Debbie DeWitt: You’re welcome, Derek.

Derek DeWitt: Again, I highly recommend that you read the entire Gallup report. Please check the transcript on the Visix website for links to that and other things that we’ve talked about. I’d like to thank Deb for talking to me today and I’d like to thank all of you for listening.