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The Surprising Relationship Between Covid-19 and Employee Engagement

The Surprising Relationship Between Covid-19 and Employee Engagement

26th July, 2020

Is it possible that the Covid-19 pandemic which has killed so far 600,000 people all over the world and infected 13 million others is the primary cause of the surprising increase in employee engagement observed during the first quarter of 2020 compared to 2019 ? Believe it or not, yes. It took an aggressive pandemic to reverse the downward trend in employee engagement. Indeed, we are going through very strange times. Two recent research studies have reached the same conclusion: despite the pandemic and the accompanying stress about health and financial security, employee engagement is increasing at unprecedented rates. How can this be? What is the relationship between employee engagement and Covid-19?

What is employee engagement?

Before going through the findings of the two recent employee engagement studies published recently, let us first highlight the exact meaning of employee engagement and its presumed impact upon modern organizations.

Organizations do not want employees to simply survive at work; they want them to thrive. They don’t want merely satisfied employees; they want them to be fully engaged. In fact, satisfaction is very different from employee engagement: The former does not drive people to want more or give more, rather it motivates them to maintain the status quo. But, In the business context, the latter is a voluntary commitment by the employee to produce the value desired by the employer. Engagement refers to being psychologically involved in, connected to, and committed to getting one's job performed in the best possible way. In other words, engagement is a state of mind, an outward expression of inner responsibility felt by the employee to be committed and accountable.

The business case for investing in employee engagement activities was made very clear by a Gallup study published few years ago. The study concluded the following findings about the rate of return in investing in such activities (the ROI of such activities):

  • Employee productivity increases by 21%
  • Profitability increases by 22%
  • Revenue per employee increases by 48%
  • Customer satisfaction increases by 10%
  • Employee absenteeism decreases by 37%
  • Voluntary employee turnover decrease by 25% to 65%
  • Quality incidents fewer by 26%
  • Safety incidents fewer by 48%

Although the employee engagement ROI seems to be very high, organizations were until very recently struggling to increase the rate of employee engagement by any meaningful amount. That was the case before Covid-19 hit the world.

The surprising impact of Covid-19 upon employee engagement

Two major studies by Gallup International and Quantum Workplace, both published end of last May, concluded that employee engagement went up considerably in 2020 compared to 2019. Gallup estimated that "the percentage of employees who are actively disengaged is at a ten year low, and the ratio of highly engaged to disengaged employees is at an all time high" (Josh Bersin, June 29, 2020)

The Quantum Workplace study, supported by 1.1 million respondents, found that employee engagement grew by 11% in 2020 compared to 2019, reaching an all-time high (Josh Bersin, June 29, 2020).

What are the contributors to this positive and totally unexpected pandemic time result?

Four contributors

According to both studies mentioned above, four contributors led to the surprising all-time high employee engagement rate during the pandemic.

  1. Leadership support. 83% of the respondents believed their leaders truly valued their people as their most important asset.
  2. Communication. 77% of respondents confirmed that they knew what the organization was and is doing and why.
  3. Compensation. 77% of respondents believed that they were paid fairly.
  4. Benefits. 85% of respondents believed that benefits received were meeting their households' needs.

Moreover, the two studies lead us to conclude that people with jobs were grateful to their organizations given the resulting high unemployment rates resulting from the pandemic everywhere in the world. Similarly, the data published by both studies revealed a very important trend, namely the fact that organizations, during the pandemic period, were treating their employees exceptionally well.

The bottom line

By supporting employees a company can survive and even do well during a pandemic. As Bersin puts it "during the pandemic, research shows that companies which lean-in to the crisis and invest in their people are outperforming their peers".

The combo of supporting leadership, open and transparent communication, fair compensation and generous benefits, is a winning combination even during a ravaging pandemic. When people are supported and taken care of, organizations can survive and even thrive.

Paradoxically, Covid-19 reversed the downward trend in employee engagement. At a time when such engagement was supposed to suffer further, it increased to an all-time high thanks to what I might call 'organizational wisdom' represented by the four contributors mentioned above. Will this upward trend continue after Covid-19 goes away? Let us hope it does.

About the Author
Fouad Awad

He holds a bachelor of arts in economics from the American University of Beirut and a master of arts in development economics from the University of Leicester, UK. Fouad is a certified teaching practitioner (CTP) by the Institute of Performance and Learning in Canada.

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