5 Employee Engagement Trends & Predictions for 2021 (& What You Need to Do to Safeguard Engagement Levels in Times of Crisis)

December 29, 2020
by Damian Keane

2020 has been a rollercoaster year of firsts for employee engagement.

According to Gallup engagement polls, US-based employees have never been more invested in their work than in May 2020. Then those numbers plummeted in late May. But they came back up in June.

Now, they seem to have settled somewhere between those highs and lows.


These fluctuations are tied to the broader going-ons in the world. And while you have no real control over them, they have an immediate impact on employee engagement levels.

2021 is shaping up to be equally challenging for organisations. Employee engagement levels will continue to dance around. And only those companies that go in prepared have a fighting chance when faced with productivity dips and low workforce motivation.

Recommended reading: The Ultimate Guide to Employee Engagement

 In this post, I’ll discuss 5 employee engagement predictions and trends for 2021. Review them and prepare so that you’re not surprised by the mounting challenges that lie ahead.


Practice Radical Transparency & Realism


One of the most important 2021 employee engagement trends is already starting to take shape. It’s the need for organisations to be 100% honest and upfront with their people.

Now, this is not a new thing. Open and truthful communication has always been one of the pillars of high employee engagement. 

However, it’s becoming imperative for companies not to let the trust side of things slide. Especially not now that 55% of employees are concerned about their job security. And when most believe their employers are not being completely above the board when it comes to the economic health of the business.


There’s no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to transparency and trust-building, and you’ll need to find what works for your organisation. Here are a few communications-centric things that have a proven track record of supporting high employee engagement.

Create many communication touchpoints — information should flow freely and through various channels. Think about mailing a company newsletter once a week. Or a ‘letter from the CEO’ type of email that goes out monthly. Collect all those pieces of communication and publish them on your internal blog (intranet or an employee engagement platform will also work). If you have the bandwidth, set up a podcast. It will help you reach millennial and Generation Z employees.

Become a source of trusted information — go beyond company-centric information. Right now, we’re all inundated with news… but we have no idea what’s trustworthy. Partner with experts to provide vetted facts about important life things — post-pandemic recovery and activities, new safety and wellbeing guidelines, and social change movements.

Communicate the difficult stuff early — and don’t sugarcoat things. Presenting a rosy front when everybody is struggling reeks of inauthenticity. Your employees can smell that… and it won’t earn you any points. If you expect you’ll have to make some difficult calls (layoffs, pay cuts, reduced benefits), tell your people. Tell them which departments will be affected; what options you’re weighing, and what you’re doing to minimise the impact. You’ll become more relatable and real— and you’ll give people a chance to prepare for various outcomes.


Focus on Employee Wellbeing


If the tumultuous 2020 proved anything, it proved that most of us are a bit frayed at the edges.

According to a Gallup poll from May 2020, 47% of employees feel worried throughout the day. 24% feel lonely. And they take all those feelings, they shove them down, and they show up at work… 

… where they’re earmarked as under-achievers and poor performers?

Any wonder that their engagement metrics don’t improve after that?


In 2021, organisations need to make a conscious effort to put employee wellbeing front and centre. This doesn’t mean that managers need to become therapists. It means that there needs to be an organisational effort to normalise ‘not being okay’ and to normalise asking for help.

Here’s how you do that:

Evaluate how your EAP is performing & promote it — if you have a small percentage of employees using your EAP (employee assistance program), you might be tempted to pat yourself on the back. But, in most cases, that low number is not an indication of a healthy and resilient workforce — it’s an indication of your program’s relative obscurity. Create an awareness campaign, and promote the benefits of the program. Make sure your employees know that you can a) provide the resources that they need, or b) serve as the first point of contact for them to get to those resources.

Encourage employees to connect — employees who have ‘work best friends’ are twice as likely to be engaged than those who don’t. That’s a Gallup fact. And while you can’t force people to socialise, you can encourage them. Design activities (both online and offline) that will help people discover shared interests, increasing the likelihood that they’ll connect on a deeper level. For example, If you’re still in WFH mode, organise intradepartmental quiz day group calls and mix up the teams.

Have leaders break the barrier — when leaders get vulnerable in front of their employees, that can have a tremendous impact on how mental health is talked about in an organisation. Find a mental health champion in your leadership team who’s not afraid to share their ups and downs, and encourage them to create a presentation/workshop. They can talk about their own experiences, as well as highlight company resources available. Worst case scenario, your line employees realise they’re not in it alone.

Recommended reading: Mental Health & Employee Engagement


Double Down on Managerial Feedback & Check-Ins


In March of 2020, for the first time ever, vast numbers of employees slipped out of their beds, grabbed a cup of coffee, and walked a few paces to their improvised home office to start the workday.

Most went through the motions for the next eight hours. If that.

A rare few, however, came in pumped to crush it that day.


Well, because their managers talked to them the day before, offering a few pointers on how they could make their processes more efficient. And they got in touch that morning to set up another quick call for tomorrow.

In a nutshell — their managers doubled down on feedback… one of the most critical components of employee engagement.

You see, when companies moved their employees to a WFH arrangement, panicked managers did the most logical thing they could think of to stave off slacking on the job — they scheduled regular calls with their team members. When they did that, they confirmed the findings of a 2019 Gallup survey: that employees perform better when they get regular feedback, even when they’re in a remote work arrangement.

Most employees - office and remote - are more likely to be fully engaged if the frequency of feedback and check-ins is increased to a few times per week.

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So in 2021, keep this employee engagement trend alive and kicking… even if your employees are no longer working from home.

Train your managers to communicate, listen, and react on an ongoing basis. These check-ins don’t have to be overly formal — they’re in place so that employees feel supported at all times.

Of course, be careful of micromanaging — no one responds well to it. But don’t be so paralyzed by the fear of it that you minimise contact with employees, even if what you have to say is negative. Studies have shown that employees prefer negative feedback to no feedback at all.

Recommended resource: 3 Smart Managerial Feedback Tactics That Build Up Employee Engagement


Create a Safe Space for Difficult Conversations


Employees don’t thrive in organisations that don’t reflect their personal values.

As much as we’re eager to keep politics and social reckonings away from the workplace, the fact remains that your company is not an island. It functions in a society, and it’s made up of parts of that society.

So when a broader social movement is happening (think Me Too or Black Lives Matter), the correct way to handle and diffuse internal tensions is to invite employees to talk things out. 

Creating a safe, non-judgmental place where people can talk about their confronting views will let everyone know that you’re paying attention. In the end, it may even help shape your position on something. To re-evaluate your values. Or to take a closer look at some of the skeletons in your own closet.

This is a more difficult approach, but it results in growth. It results in alignment. It results in a diverse, more fair, more eager workplace.

Millennials are not in it for the money. Around 75% would be willing to take a pay cut if that means that they’d be working for a company that shares their values.

Your alternative?

Well, you could try your hand at straddling the fence. Coinbase did that recently by announcing that theirs is an apolitical workplace. The result? Around 5% of their employees asked for their severance package as they quit in protest.


Ask Questions All the Time


The last 2021 employee engagement trend I want to emphasize has to do with employee monitoring.

Most companies will be in a hybrid working mode for the better part of the year — WFH + office work. In this setup, it’s easy for employers to become convinced that they need to constantly digitally track what their people are doing.

This thinking is a slippery slope that undermines trust and transparency. In the end, it has a net negative impact on employee engagement.

Why not try listening instead of controlling?

Pulse surveys allow you to ask important questions on a weekly (or even a daily) basis. And because they’re anonymous, your employees won’t shy away from being 100% honest.

This ‘always on’ approach gives you an opportunity to course-correct your programs and initiatives. It also signals to employees that you’re listening and taking action. Of course, this is only true if you’re actually making changes based on survey results. Your ability to follow through, coupled with pulse survey frequency, can lead to better overall engagement scores.


Recommended reading: How to Measure Employee Engagement — Tips, Tools & Tricks

So before you install tracking software on their devices, stop and weigh the pros and cons of action. Will this really give you the level of control you’re looking for? Or will it make your employees resentful and less trusting, snuffing out their enthusiasm for your organization?

Ready to take 2021 employee engagement challenges head-on? Ambassify provides you with a platform that helps you keep your employees in the loop. Easily push relevant information through any comms channel. Deploy pulse surveys at the drop of a hat. Encourage employees to share their stories and build connections. Keep those engagement levels at an all-time high regardless of what 2021 throws at you.


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