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Employee engagement: Why you should listen to your employees right now, during Covid (*new data*)

19 Oct 2020 -

Since Covid came along, on the whole organisations have stepped up. Empathetic leadership, communication and wellbeing support were all thrust to the forefront as companies embraced the challenges together. As a consequence, employee survey data for the last 6 months shows an unprecedented (there’s that word again) rise in employee engagement.

After a brief hiatus, we find ourselves with a gloomy Covid forecast for the foreseeable. We’re redoubling our efforts to support our people through more uncertainty.

So what are the learnings from the past 6 months? And what can organisations do to harness the goodwill and make sure we don’t lose these hard-won gains?


We compared the last 6 months’ employee engagement survey data to 2019 results

To understand the current state of employee engagement, we analysed the results of People Insight employee surveys that ran from April – September 2020. We then compared these to 2019 employee survey results, reviewing over 1.5 million data points.

2019 data set: ‘Pre-Covid’

This sample data set contains results from engagement surveys in SMEs-enterprise, in public, private and not for profit sectors, all using the core PEARL engagement questions.

Apr-Sept 2020 data set: ‘Post-Covid’

This sample contains survey results from a broad range of organisations in private and public sector including construction, utilities, financial services, healthcare & pharma, professional services, retail/leisure, emergency services and universities. Again, the surveys used PEARL.


Employee engagement is at an all-time high

The biggest news is that overall employee engagement has increased by 7 percentage points between the pre and post Covid samples.

Overall engagement is an average of scores against the 5 outcome measures in the PEARL engagement model:

1. Pride: I am proud to say I work for (MY ORGANISATION)

2. Endeavour: Working here makes me want to do the best work I can

3. Care: I care about the future of (MY ORGANISATION)

4. Longevity: I would still like to be working here in 2 years’ time

5. Advocacy: I would recommend (MY ORGANISATION) as a good place to work.


This is significant because the overall engagement score in our database of millions of survey responses is normally pretty stable, and usually varies by less than a percentage point between years.

In addition, each of the 35 questions in the PEARL employee engagement question set has shown an increase in scores.


So why the dramatic increase in employee engagement?

It’s pretty clear that organisations who chose to listen to their people through surveys stepped up during Covid.

The fact is, that surveying during challenging times is in itself evidence of an involving, transparent, engaging culture.

Crisis demands leaders be visible, directive and empathetic, that employees are supported as individuals, and requires social cohesion, or a sense of ‘we are all in this together.’ Our database during lockdown is full of positive comments about:

  • The focus on wellbeing – both physical and mental
  • The informal, frequent and heartfelt messages from senior leaders
  • Leaders’ communication hasn’t been all one way; efforts to listen have been recognised
  • The provision of tech, IT, hardware and system access (that happened almost overnight) has meant people could do their jobs


These comments correlate with the biggest increases in scores between the 2 periods:


QuestionPercentage point difference between pre and post Covid scores
My organisation does enough to support my health and wellbeing at work23% up
I have the equipment and resources I need to do my work properly11% up
I believe action will be taken as a result of this survey11% up
Senior leaders make the effort to listen to staff9% up


One of the most interesting findings in the research is that ‘I believe action will be taken as a result of this survey’ is up 11 percentage points.

At People Insight, this is one of our favourite survey questions. It’s a brilliant measure of trust in leaders, of a sense of involvement, and positivity about the organisation doing the right thing. Measuring changes in this question score between surveys is a great way to assess how well the organisation has acted on results, made changes and importantly, communicated them to staff.


Questions with the smallest change in score pre and during Covid:


QuestionPercentage point difference between pre and post Covid scores
My career development aspirations at my organisation are being met2% up
I can get the training and development I need to do my job2% up
My organisation ensures that all people are treated fairly and equally1% up


The questions that see the smallest change in score between the periods include those relating to development and training.  It’s perhaps understandable in a time of crisis and short-term focus, businesses haven’t been able to prioritise career development. Training may have been limited by a lack of in-person opportunities; it perhaps takes longer to switch to online training and may not have been as high priority as day to day operations.

Another question score that bucks the improvement trend is ‘My organisation ensures that all people are treated fairly and equally.’ We suspect this is down to 2 issues; The events surrounding Black Lives Matter, and the higher awareness of fair treatment that may have come with this. In addition, some survey respondents have perceived that departments or teams have been treated more or less favourably during Covid. This may have been down to different kinds of roles and their importance to business continuity, some people on furlough whilst others not, and other restructures.


What to do next to maintain employee engagement through the uncertainty ahead


Organisations are asked again to flex creatively to meet varying needs. We can’t assume that the goodwill and engagement achieved will stay – particularly as we try to transition post furlough, with potential restructures and prolonged working from home.

  1. Leaders keep the visibility, informality and empathy going

Whilst the informal ‘CEO-at-home-with-the-kids’ video struck a chord in lockdown, it might be time for a refresh – but what’s certain is leading with compassion is a winning strategy in current times. It might not always be the CEO – regional leaders may have more of a comms role where there are local lockdowns, but the style and tone should continue.


2. Line managers are crucial – are we supporting them fully?

Line managers have a tricky role during Covid – being upbeat and motivational, communicating honestly ‘up’ and ‘down’ the organisation, delivering tough news, trying to do more with less.  So are we supporting them sufficiently with clear guidance, empathy and support from their own managers?

As we approach the end of furlough and potential restructures, line managers have a huge role in manging ‘survivor syndrome’. Research from Mark Murphy shows people feel guilty, anxious and angry when they survive redundancy, but their friends & colleagues don’t.  They are less likely to endorse the company and its products / services, report they are less productive, think there are more mistakes, and feel more negative about the company’s future.

Mark’s research found managers who were visible, approachable, and open made a significant difference to their peoples’ engagement: 

“Managers need to be highly visible to their staff, approachable even when they don’t have anything new to say, and candid about the state of things in order to build their trust and credibility. It is imperative that you train your managers how to both manage (redundancies) and deal with the highly debilitating aftermath. You have to keep the surviving employees engaged and productive, or your company won’t ever recover.”

Mark Murphy, LeadershipIQ


3. LISTEN! Maintain employee surveys

Listening during challenging times is absolutely essential – look at the engagement scores above in the cohort that bravely and decisively listened over the last few months.

“With advances in listening techniques… leaders can now address employee experience in a more targeted and dynamic way. While drilling down on which employees need more and varied types of support, they can also tailor actions that create widely shared feelings of well-being and cohesion across the workforce.”

McKinsey, How leaders can seize the moment.

At People Insight, we’ve provided free question sets, fast pulse surveys and deeper listening throughout Covid.

Here’s what our clients have to say:

“Data from the pulse surveys helped us make smarter decisions during lockdown and target activity. Working with PI provided a high level of customer service and quick turnaround on requests.”

Adnan Bajwa, Head of OD and Engagement, London South Bank University


“We chose to survey during Covid-19 because we’re an essential service provider, we wanted to ensure our colleagues had what they needed to operate smoothly amidst the changing circumstances. We have built up a great relationship with People Insight and they really do understand the whole employee survey journey, and how to maximise the benefits of carrying out a survey.”

Steve Lynas, HR Director, Sunbelt Rentals


“One of our core values is we openly connect and communicate. The survey provided us with the opportunity to gather and understand feedback on subjects that we know are likely to be important to our employees during Covid as well as very important to us as a company and our culture. We are confident in PI end to end and know that our dedicated consultant is on hand for anything we may need.”

Paula Elliott, Senior HRM, Symphony Retail AI


4. Maintain the health and wellbeing support shared during lockdown

The results above show great health & wellbeing focus – the trick now is to keep this going over the longer term.

Are you tracking the wellbeing of your staff? Do you know who is at risk of burnout – potentially those line managers who’ve had relentless pressure over the last 8 months, or those who’ve kept the business moving whilst others were on furlough.

Consider a wellbeing and burnout risk assessment – either attached to your regular employee survey or as a stand-alone measure. You’ll be able to see which areas of the business and employee groups are doing well, and which aren’t, so you can act accordingly.


Try our wellbeing and burnout risk surveys


5. Plan less, act more

Were often oh so careful when rolling out new processes, policies and tech, and if we’ve learned one thing from lockdown it’s that we can all be more agile. The things that have been released quickly rather than in a more controlled way have had a real success. E.g. Nottingham Building Society and the University of Bradford rolled out IT in half the usual time – and it’s worked brilliantly. Organisations who are rapidly responsive garner the confidence of their employees.


6. Encourage social cohesion

In some ways, we’ve all been in it together, in others, divides have surfaced across the country (north/south and mask wearers / rule flouters) to name a few.

Encourage social cohesion between non-furloughed workers who’ve worked flat out and may be exhausted whilst furloughed workers were perceived to have had it easy. Both sides may feel the other has been treated favourably. Encourage discussion, such as virtual live groups, distanced face to face groups or online discussion boards. Share what the experience has been like for everyone, share concerns, input to solutions and new policies together (such as annual leave, flexible working etc.)

Buddy up the non-furloughed with the furloughed to help them overcome feeling a bit rusty, or temporarily lacking confidence (See our Reboarding guide for more details.)


7. Get back to career development

Covid has given people a lot of opportunity to reassess their lives and what is important to them. The rise in unemployment does not however mean disengaged people will stay in their current roles.

If they have been deprioritised, renew the focus on coaching, training, feedback and development planning. We know from years of employee research that “My career development aspirations are being met” is one of the strongest drivers of employee engagement and talent retention.


8. Check your culture for diversity and inclusion

As the results show above, peoples’ expectations for diversity and inclusion have certainly shifted this year. So, what do people think of your culture? Are you doing a fantastic job like Vinci Construction or Brewin Dolphin? Our diversity and inclusion index helps you:


  • Evaluate inclusion: how your people feel about your culture and how they belong using our psychologist-developed Inclusion index. 
  • Understand sentiment: Dig deeper into your employees’ comments about why they feel the way they do 
  • Establish inclusive, sensitive demographic data so all of your employees feel represented 
  • Include protected characteristics so you can report employee survey results accurately 
  • Explore intersectional data to help you promote equity in underrepresented groups 
  • Understand the relationship between intention to stay, engagement, diversity and inclusion so you can act 

Get a FREE SAMPLE of our diversity & inclusion survey


 Talk to us about your employee survey needs


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