Employee engagement

Employee engagement surveys are one of the best ways to manage talent retention, employee performance and productivity. It thus serves as an important tool in the HR landscape. But what happens when a pandemic strikes? Is employee engagement up or down during Covid-19?

Measuring employee engagement does not only allow for the identification of active engagement felt by employees, but also the degree of active disengagement. As such, it serves as a critical warning for potential talent losses.

Normally, employee engagement results improve gradually over time.

One would, therefore, be inclined to think that engagement is likely to drop amidst the uncertainty of the Covid-19 pandemic but, it didn’t! In fact, it improved significantly during Covid-19 and, therefore, leaves us with new insight.

US Surveys show surprising employee engagement results

Gallup, found in surveying 4,724 full- and part-time U.S. employees in early May, that 38% of employees were engaged, with 13% actively disengaged. While the ‘disengaged’ group numbers were in line with last year’s results, the number of ‘engaged’ employees climbed from 34% to 38%. This is the most significant improvement since 2000, when it was recorded as 26%.

Results of a study by Quantum Workplace also reported an increase in employee engagement since the Covid-19 pandemic became an economic reality in the States. Their research identified an initial dip in employee engagement as the impact of Covid-19 started to be understood outside Chinese borders. However, soon thereafter,  it picked up in momentum, and proceeded to climb to unseen heights.

According to their measuring methodology, which is a different index to the one used by Gallup, the number of actively engaged employees increased from 72% in 2019, to 83% in May 2020, despite the the initial dip measured at 70%. This means an increase of 11% compared to the same period in 2019.

Why would employee engagement improve when it’s least expected?

The above surprising results lead to the question: ’ Why would a greater number of employees feel engaged when their well-being is negatively affected?’

The most surprising reason seems to be that employers/managers seem to have moved beyond the norm in reaching out to employees during this period. According to Jim Harter, author of the Gallup article, employees indicated that they were generally satisfied with the way that their employers were handling Covid-19 work challenges . Employers generally demonstrated clear plans, helped employees prepare for new work circumstances and kept employees in the loop about new developments.

A local survey showed similar results. KPMG consulted more than 400 employees from over 58 organisations in Southern Africa, during the months of May/June 2020. Despite the personal and domestic challenges they were facing, respondents reported that they felt positive about the extent to which their managers were assisting them in coping with the pandemic, as well as about the degree of support their teams were providing in the process. They felt that they were well-informed about well-being resources at their disposal and were enabled to work remotely by the availability of the required technology.

Another explanation for the rise in employee engagement amidst a pandemic, is the issue of economic constraints. In this vein, Gallup’s Jim Harter, suggests that employees are likely to place a greater value on being employed amidst lay-offs. As such, they may have been more inclined to choose favourable responses than under ‘normal’ situations.

So what are the HR implications of these survey results?


A key take-away of the significantly improved US-based employee engagement scores seen in the US since May is that, when employers demonstrate decisive leadership, communicate proactively, and ensure that employees are equipped with the necessary job-related and tools for well-being , they are able to significantly and intentionally improve the known connection between employee engagement, on the one hand, and profitability, on the other.

Learn more about how you can enhance employee engagement and performance.

Not getting Competence SA’s Newsletter regularly? Click here to subscribe.