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In March this year, the COVID-19 pandemic turned the world of work upside down. As our typical schedules fell to dust, employees globally looked to their organisations for support, reassurance and information. But what were they met with?

According to the reports that followed, some employers were quick to adopt new ways of working and to introduce measures to support staff, while others struggled to adapt. Some people working from home relished their newfound freedom, while others worried about their productivity and suffered with disengagement and fatigue.

We wanted to gain a fuller understanding how users globally and their employees were faring during this turbulent time. So we delved into our database of employee survey reposes – now the largest standardised dataset of employee feedback in the world.

All in all, we studied 10 million survey responses globally, 500,000 of which were left by UK employees. We compared the survey scores that employees gave in January 2020, to the scores given by the same employees in July. This meant we were able to determine the impact of COVID-19 – and its consequent working restrictions – on employee engagement.

A clear rise in employee engagement
Our analysis revealed more than a glimmer of hope. Employee engagement rose by 0.5% in the UK and 2% globally between January and July, driven by multiple perceived improvements, including more autonomy and mental health and wellbeing support offered by employers.

The effect of remote working:
Our analysis found an 8.5% improvement in UK scores to our remote work question: I have the option to work remotely when I’d like to. This rise was the highest seen across all the survey questions. This is perhaps unsurprising given that many employees have been working remotely – some for the first time – during the pandemic.

When we ran an analysis of the comments left in response to this question, further trends emerged. Globally, 16% of all positive responses explicitly mentioned flexibility, while 25% of comments on increased scores contained words like love, happy and wonderful. Considering that 15% of comments on increased scores also used words like; permanent, forever and indefinitely, the takeaway for employers is clear. 

Despite the inevitable restrictions inflicted by global lockdowns, many employees seemingly enjoyed the autonomy they were granted around where and when they could work during the first half of the year. Employers should bear this in mind when considering how to evolve working practises moving forward. When people have greater autonomy to work in the way that is best for them, they feel a greater sense of responsibility and trust, which in turn increases motivation, productivity and overall engagement.

A new working environment:
Our analysis of responses to our ‘environment’ question revealed a similar trend. Scores against the statement, My physical work environment contributes positively to my ability to do my job – increased by more than 8% in the UK, and 7% globally.

It seems that working remotely, or with new safety measures in place, had a positive impact on many employees. As we look towards the likely emergence of more hybrid working contexts, organisations should focus on rethinking the design of their offices so they are optimised for intentional collaboration and social connection – rather than for employees to work side-by-side, five days a week.

An increased support for mental wellbeing:
Undoubtedly one of the biggest positives to emerge from the pandemic is a renewed focus on employee mental health. Scores to mental health-related question – [Company] really cares about my mental wellbeing – increased by 7.2% in the UK and 5% globally. This tells us that employees felt there was a significant step-change in the support they were being offered by their employers between January and July.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that depression and anxiety cost the global economy $1trillion each year in lost productivity. And in May 2020, WHO advocated substantial investment to avert a global mental health crisis caused by the pandemic. Employers should heed this intervention and look to emulate it in their workplaces. Those that foster strong mental health among their employees are more likely to have engaged and productive teams, reduce attrition and absenteeism, and drive future business success.

Looking ahead and maintaining momentum
The findings from the data clearly highlights the importance of providing safe channels for regular feedback from everyone in a company at all levels.. By listening closely, employers can truly understand the evolving needs of their workforce and leverage that in creating a strong employee experience.  Real-time insights, such as those garnered from employee surveys, have been crucial throughout the crisis – and will continue to be as organisations move into the next phase of workplace transformation.

As the focus eventually shifts towards rebuilding the economy, employers must not forget the progress they have made and the lessons they have learned on this journey. The key for understanding what to do next is listening intelligently to your employees’ experiences, and using the insights to take decisive action and drive positive change. As we’ve seen from our data set, when employees feel heard and supported, they are empowered and motivated to help drive your business forward.

Rick Kershaw, Chief People Officer – Peakon

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