Are we overly optimistic about employee engagement during COVID-19?

by | Jul 10, 2020 | Covid-19, Public Relations

Since March 2020, the Institute for Public Relations, with partners such as Peppercomm, Harris Insights, and Leger, has published four studies (the fifth, an e-book, is to be published in July 2020) focused on how communication departments and agencies are handling the COVID-19 pandemic internally.

Overall, it is clear the communication function is critically important to companies, with 81 percent of respondents saying their department has been “very important” to their internal response.

But based on our research, we’ve seen differences between how well communication executives think their employees are doing compared to how the employees actually say that they are doing. Overall, communication executives think employees are more engaged with the company than they actually are.

The comparisons are based on our study with Peppercomm that surveyed 403 communication executives and our study with Leger that surveyed 2,530 employees in Canada and the U.S.. Communication executives said employee engagement in their company increased 63 percent while employees themselves said their engagement increased by only 13 percent. Additionally, communication executives said employee productivity increased 25 percent but also decreased 40 percent; employees said their productivity increased by 12 percent but also decreased by 21 percent. Employee trust and satisfaction were similarly skewed as 32 percent of communication executives said they have seen employee satisfaction increase and trust increase by 49 percent. Employees, on the other hand, said their satisfaction was only up by 12 percent and trust by 15 percent.

So why is there a gap?

One reason could be the lack of appropriate measurement on the part of the organization to understand how their employees are doing. In the IPR-Peppercomm survey, only 28 percent said they were surveying their employees and only 27 percent said they were conducting any type of measurement at all.

Surveying employees is absolutely critical, especially in a time of change. Surveys help to gauge how employees are feeling, serve as a great listening tool, while allowing companies to identify gaps or areas of concern. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff found this out when he surveyed his employees and found 36 percent reported having mental health issues during COVID-19. The company took immediate action by increasing their offerings of services, including wellness programs focused on mental, physical, and emotional health that is embedded throughout the organization and championed by leadership.

Additionally, research has found that diverse employees, including those who are frontline workers, have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Along with the impact from protests following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, employees may be feeling additionally stressed and overwhelmed. Surveys are a great listening tool to see how well employees think companies are doing and give suggestions for what they could do better. In some cases, companies gauge their hotlines or anecdotal feedback from managers or focus groups as a valid source for how employees are feeling, but this is not a representative sample of the employee audience.

Overall, companies should be thinking about the best ways to engage employees

One of the best ways to do that is to survey them, especially as we consider the perception gap between executives and employees. Dr. Linjuan Rita Men, Associate Professor at the University of Florida and Chief Research Editor of the IPR Organizational Communication Research Center, has conducted extensive research in employee engagement and found that engagement translates into positive outcomes for the organization, including productivity, retention, and advocacy behavior. Engaged employees make a difference and companies must listen to them.

Tina McCorkindale


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