Organizations are using 2022 as a "recovery year" from the pandemic and the Great Resignation that has followed. HR professionals often are jumping from fire drill to fire drill, so it's easy to lose sight of long-term goals like countering the Great Resignation's effects and listening to employee feedback. Data collected from some of the top companies in the world point to environmental factors, like COVID's effects on the family or anxiety about returning to the office, as reasons driving employee experience and overall engagement down. It's a trend that started around mid-2021 after an initial rally the year before. Keeping a close ear to what your employees are experiencing—both mentally and physically, while we all strive to get a handle on new work environments—will help employees feel more engaged and more likely to stay in the long run.
Employee experience data from millions of employees over the course of the pandemic closely mirrors a "trauma curve," which is a well-known psychological process victims of trauma use to cope and heal with what they've experienced. The trauma curve, which for an individual might be measured in emotional response or impact, typically shows a progression of phases. After a traumatic event has a negative impact, there is a rebound into resilience. But even that resilience phase can be followed by a "burnout and disillusion" phase, driving a person to a low point in emotional response before a "return to normalcy."
The pandemic affected all of us as a collective, at home and in the workplace. Our research team posed a theory—would we see a "collective trauma curve" that mirrors that of an individual? When we examined 2020 and 2021 data collected from several million employees across a variety of industries, the shape of the curve was unmistakable. After a dip in employee engagement when the pandemic hit in 2020, we spent much of the next year in a period of resilience, especially when vaccines became available. But when employee engagement headed down the steep slope of "burnout and disillusion" in the second half of 2021, the Great Resignation was on. A flood of talent headed for the exits as our "intent to stay" measure—usually quite stable over time—dropped steadily through the second half of 2021. That trend continues this year, and from what we currently see in the churn rates among our customers, it's likely that trend downward will hold until the end of 2022.
But what do you do today if we're assuming that things will get worse—or at best stay at current levels—before they get better?
HR professionals who want to limit the talent loss during this time can start by getting enough feedback from employees so that action plans are data driven. Compared to pre-pandemic times, company leaders are much more interested in starting continuous listening programs rather than relying on an annual "census-style" survey.
But listening without any follow-up actions can backfire—once you've listened and identified ways you could improve employees' experiences, a clearly communicated, visible action plan has to be the next step. Without it, there's a danger leadership will be perceived as listening, but not caring enough to do anything. Every listening program is different, but here's what works as building blocks for a successful program:
- Before even gathering data, decide on what you might do if you find big downward patterns in engagement metrics. The action does not always have to be drastic—your data might point to an easier fix, like making work schedules more flexible or finding thoughtful ways to show employees they are valued.
- Sort the data so you can dig into the drivers of engagement—don't just look at the top line numbers.
- Track that data a few times over the course of the year and confirm whether your actions are achieving positive results. Double down on the actions taken when they have a positive effect.
- Focus future employee feedback opportunities on the broader employee experience rather than only focusing on engagement, getting to the root of what gives employees purpose and meaning in their work lives.
Here's an example of how listening could pay off. You see a lower "intention to stay" across the board, and one of your surveys shows many employees do not feel valued. You test a new program in the lowest-scoring department, making sure that employees are publicly recognized for achievements in a department-wide weekly meeting. One quarter later you notice the curve flattening…then reversing direction the next quarter. After two quarters the program's success is clear, and you can deploy it throughout the company knowing that the resources invested will have a significant positive impact on future retention.
While normalcy seems a long way off, we should trust the trauma curve and wait for employees to process the trauma in their own ways. As executives who care about their employees' well-being, the best thing we can do is to make sure our ears are open and our leaders are ready to act.
John Borland is CEO of data analytics firm Perceptyx based in Temecula, Calif.