There’s no doubt that the past year was a challenging year for many workplaces around the world. The COVID-19 pandemic caused uncertainty and disruption—businesses executed mass layoffs, furloughs, or experienced closures. Employees had to switch to remote work due to lockdowns, work through heightened stress levels, or experience job losses.

As a result, workplaces experienced fluctuations in employee engagement. For the first time in Gallup’s 20-year history of tracking employee engagement data, the percentage of engaged employees in the U.S., which has been 34 percent, changed. Gallup recorded historic fluctuations—a drop to 31 percent and a new high of 40 percent. While the reason for the decline in employee engagement may seem obvious, its rise has been attributed to recent improvements in employer communication and employee feelings of preparedness.

In 2021, we expect business and HR leaders to have some concerns for their workplaces. We think so because some of last year’s challenges may linger until the pandemic ends—hopefully soon! CEOs will be asking themselves the following questions: how long do we need to focus on short-term plans instead of long-term goals? How will my team prefer to work in the future, and what does it mean for recruiting and retaining talent? How do we keep our teams engaged and informed about the challenges that lie ahead?

Companies looking to survive this year need to prioritize employee engagement so that employees can remain emotionally committed to their jobs. Extensive research has shown that higher employee engagement leads to better productivity, profitability, and customer engagement.

This article discusses three latest trends in employee engagement that companies need to watch out for in 2021 and what leaders can do to improve employee engagement.‍

Increased Demand for Work-Life Balance

As a result of the pandemic and stay-at-home orders, many companies worldwide quickly transitioned to remote work. The data shows that 88 percent of companies encouraged or required their workers to work from home since the pandemic started.

Even though remote work allows employees the flexibility they need to remain productive, we have to consider its impact on employees’ personal lives. For example, according to McKinsey’s recent survey, parents experience the benefits of remote work differently. The findings show that 63.2 percent of remote-working fathers are engaged, while only 38.5 percent of remote-working mothers are engaged.

Also, remote work has required total dependence on digital communication and collaboration tools—this means that employees have had to navigate between tasks and virtual meetings, often without taking a break. To provide context, Zoom surpassed 300 million daily Zoom meeting participants in April 2020 as compared to 10 million in December 2019. As a result of the constant stimulation needed for these virtual activities, many employees have experienced burnout. According to a survey conducted by Blind, a professional network, 73 percent of employees reported feeling burned out since the pandemic, as compared to 61 percent in mid-February 2020. The top reason for burnout is the lack of separation between “work” and “life.”

Remote work is here to stay, but employers can expect to see an increasing demand for work-life balance in 2021. Research has shown that a strong positive relationship exists between employee engagement and work-life balance—that is, employee engagement increases as work-life balance increases.

Companies that prioritize work-life balance for employees will come out strongest in 2021. As an HR leader, you can start by understanding that employees’ needs vary when it comes to work-life balance. Some employees may prefer to have more mental health benefits or flexible paid time off (PTO). In contrast, others may prefer to have more family-friendly or pet-friendly benefits available to them. It’s also necessary for employers to encourage open communication so that employees can express their work concerns. Lastly, a lot of mental health experts usually advise employees to create boundaries for themselves. So, employers need to respect those boundaries by not sending work requests outside of work hours.

Stronger Need for Emotional Connection

Gallup’s research has shown that only 15 percent of employees worldwide are engaged—these are employees that are highly connected to their work and workplace, going above and beyond to make meaningful contributions to business goals.

In the past year, employees have found it difficult to maintain emotional connections at work, and this is due to the psychological effects that the pandemic has had on them. Even further, social distancing and remote working have amplified feelings of disconnection for many employees. According to a global study of over 2,700 employees conducted by Qualtrics and SAP, 75 percent of people have reported feeling more socially isolated since the pandemic started.

According to the employee engagement trends 2021, companies will need to prioritize employees’ emotional connection. Making emotional connections at work should not be misconstrued as being emotional or showing emotion; instead, it’s about the human connections employees have with one another. According to a Forbes article, leaders can foster emotional connections among employees, even virtually, by demonstrating empathy, communicating transparently and truthfully, and showing personality in their interactions. When companies prioritize emotional connections, they foster positive work cultures with better employee engagement, higher loyalty, and overall better profits.

New Focus on Employee Recognition

Employee recognition has become even more critical now more than ever for employee engagement. When most employees worked out of their office spaces, it used to be relatively easy and spontaneous for coworkers to praise each other during meetings and other informal interactions. In the past year, however, employees have experienced significant changes and are limited in their ability to give recognition. Since many workers work remotely, simple recognition efforts such as high-fives or regular treats are not readily available. Remote workers often feel left out and miss out on spontaneous recognition, which affects their engagement levels.

The data has shown that employee engagement, productivity, and performance are lower in organizations without employee recognition. As per employee engagement trends 2020 (2021), we can expect companies to have a new focus on employee recognition. Since many companies globally have widely adopted remote work, it would be important to ensure that your employees—especially remote employees—feel adequately recognized for their contributions. Also, we expect to see leaders using more technology-driven employee recognition ideas for rewarding and motivating employees. More companies will rely on employee recognition platforms to offer digital rewards and incentives for employees.

Empuls, one of the Best Tools for Measuring Employee Engagement

Our product, Empuls, offers a holistic way for organizations to facilitate these three recent trends in employee engagement and beyond. Empuls offers powerful features like Rewards & Recognition, Pulse Surveys, eNPS surveys, 1-on-1 Feedback, Social Intranet and People Analytics  - no matter where your employees are. The product is trusted by 1000+ organizations globally and has been recognized as one of the best tools for measuring employee engagement. With Empuls,

  • Employers can “listen” and understand employees’ needs through our pulse surveys that ask the right questions.
  • Employees can stay connected with everyone in the organization and foster emotional connections with others by sharing updates, events, milestones, projects, and more, regardless of where they are working from in the world.
  • Lastly, employers can make employees realize how their actions contribute to organizational growth by giving meaningful and personalized rewards.