Just before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a Gallup poll revealed a concerning trend: 69% of employees were classified as ‘actively disengaged,’ suggesting a state of workplace discontent where individuals were unproductive and potentially spreading negativity to their peers. Additionally, over 51% of the workforce were described as ‘not engaged,’ lacking the motivation to go above and beyond for their organization, and showing minimal commitment to organizational goals or outcomes.
However, the situation appeared to have worsened amidst the pandemic. By March 2021, the proportion of ‘actively disengaged’ employees had risen to an alarming 74%. This marks a significant and even more worrying increase from a decade earlier when Gallup’s 2011-2012 study reported that 24% of employees were ‘actively disengaged’ and 63% were ‘not engaged.’
This tripling (!) of deeply disengaged workers within less than ten years highlights a critical issue in employee engagement and workplace morale that organizations must address urgently.
The Great Resignation
Despite labor shortages and elevated unemployment rates during the pandemic, many employees have left their jobs en masse. This widespread departure from the workforce has been termed “The Great Resignation” by Anthony Klotz, an organizational psychologist and associate professor of management at Texas A&M University’s May Business School. Klotz observes that given the prominent role work plays in American society, the profound upheaval in the business world would inevitably precipitate a corresponding crisis of purpose among workers.
In an interview for Business Insider, Klotz pointed out:
“From organizational research, we know that when human beings come into contact with death and illness in their lives, it causes them to take a step back and ask existential questions. What gives me purpose and happiness in life, and does that match how I’m spending my right now? So, in many cases, those reflections will lead to life pivots.”
According to Klotz, this should create a moment of reflection for employers:
“I think we are entering a period where companies are trying to figure out who we are in this new world of work. What kind of schedule do we want to give our employees?”
Improving Employee Experience
Research by Deloitte, presented in the ‘2019 Global Human Capital Trends,’ revealed that:
“[what could be causing the current employee departure] is mainly the [lack of] meaning and growth people find in the work itself—and to improve that [condition], the entire organization has to be involved.”
One of the biggest challenges Deloitte identified is the need to improve the “Employee Experience.” Eighty-four (84%) percent of the survey respondents rated this issue important, and 28 percent identified it as one of the three most urgent issues facing their organization.
- twice as much innovation,
- double the customer satisfaction,
- and 25% more profits.
- The intricacy of the Work: This refers to the complexity and challenge inherent in the tasks and responsibilities assigned to employees. Intricate work often requires higher cognitive engagement, problem-solving, and creativity, leading to a more engaging and fulfilling work experience. When employees are involved in complex tasks that match their skills and push their boundaries, they will likely find their work more meaningful and rewarding. This can lead to increased motivation, higher productivity, and greater loyalty to the company.
- Behavioral Standards that Promote Teamwork, Innovation, and Empowerment:
- Teamwork: Behavioral norms that foster collaboration among team members can significantly enhance the employee experience. When employees feel supported by their peers and believe their contributions are valued within the team, they’re more likely to be engaged and committed to their work.
- Innovation: A culture encouraging innovation allows employees to experiment, take risks, and bring new ideas. When employees know that their creative efforts are welcomed and that failure is seen as a learning opportunity rather than a setback, they’re more inclined to innovate and contribute to the company’s growth.
- Empowerment: Empowering employees by giving them autonomy and decision-making authority makes them feel trusted and valued. This can lead to a sense of ownership over their work, driving them to perform better and contribute more effectively to organizational goals.
Navigating Anxiety and Disruption in a Non-Linear World
Another critical challenge predates the pandemic: technological advancements and new business models have forced established companies to downsize, heightening anxiety and fear among remaining employees. While innovations are generally embraced, the accompanying upheavals often intensify these negative emotions. The unpredictability of the future and the realization that past strategies may no longer guarantee success exacerbates the situation.
This era of disruption challenges traditional linear thinking – the belief that processes start at point A, proceed through a sequence of steps, and conclude at point B. With change coming from all directions, relying on past practices offers little solace, rendering them ineffective. Consequently, we find ourselves compelled to navigate the present without a clear roadmap, amplifying our anxiety and fear due to the uncertainty of what lies ahead, how to prepare for it, or what dangers to avoid.
How to Cope with Uncertainty
What do people do when they are uncertain about the future? Let’s discuss two ways of coping:
- People look beyond themselves.
- People look within themselves.
The Edelman Trust Barometer 2021 shows that trust and confidence are at an all-time low:
“With a growing Trust gap and trust declines worldwide, people are looking for leadership and solutions as they reject talking heads who they deem not credible. None of the societal leaders we track—government leaders, CEOs, journalists, and even religious leaders—are trusted to do what is right, with drops in trust scores for all. In particular, CEO’s credibility is at all-time lows in several countries, including Japan (18 percent) and France (22 percent), making the challenge for CEO leaders even more acute as they try to address today’s problems.”
What are the odds that coping rule #1, to trust those beyond yourself, will put people at ease?
The tendency to prioritize personal judgment and self-reliance, as evidenced by The Great Resignation, is a significant coping strategy for many. This trend suggests a declaration of independence, with individuals essentially stating, “I trust only myself.” However, quitting goes beyond mere distrust or lack of confidence. The pandemic offered many the opportunity to reflect deeply on the value and purpose of their work, leading to the realization that their roles lacked a meaningful sense of contribution.
Historically, the emphasis on specialization over a more holistic approach to work roles has led to a disconnect between employees and their jobs, a phenomenon Karl Marx anticipated. This division and prioritization of specialization have resulted in workers feeling estranged from their work and, by extension, from the organizational culture itself.
Functional silos within companies further exacerbated this detachment, creating isolated and sometimes conflicting subcultures within the same organization. The isolation brought on by COVID-19 intensified this sense of detachment, as the absence of daily interactions with colleagues left individuals without a support network for sharing concerns or celebrating achievements, prompting the question: without these connections, what incentive is there to stay?
Trust in Crisis
Edelman’s Trust Barometer reveals that businesses are viewed as the most trusted institutions (61%), ranking above NGOs (57%), governments (53%), and media (51%). This positions businesses uniquely to lead, but a lack of trust in leadership poses a significant challenge. The solution lies in reorganizing businesses to foster trust and confidence among all stakeholders. This involves collectively crafting a new vision and establishing fresh goals and objectives, transcending rank and status to imbue our future endeavors with purpose.
This shift necessitates moving away from linear, rigid protocols towards embracing a nonlinear approach and distributed authority. Decision-making should evolve from being solely information-based to embracing rapid experimentation across diverse disciplines and perspectives. Given the slim odds of success in innovation (1:200), it’s crucial to quickly identify and discontinue unviable initiatives, focusing resources instead on those with the potential to drive future growth.
What's Your Exposure to Risk?
When a company loses one-third or more of its workforce, the risk of bankruptcy climbs sharply. This drastic reduction in staff compromises the organization’s ability to perform even its most fundamental functions.
Our discussions on the RoundMap® website have highlighted critical issues stemming from overemphasizing labor division and specialization. This imbalance has led to a noticeable deficiency in several key areas:
- Psychological safety
- Emotional intelligence
The list is extensive, and these challenges were anticipated.
The Great Resignation emphasizes addressing the root causes of employee disengagement and turnover: the need for organizations to foster a work environment that values purpose, engagement, and a sense of belonging.
The RoundMap® Framework offers a roadmap for businesses to create a work environment that fulfills these intrinsic human needs, fostering a culture of engagement, purpose, and unity that can drive the company forward while mitigating the risks associated with high turnover and employee dissatisfaction.