Much ink has been spilt over how the pandemic has changed working environments. Even more has been spilt on how workers are adapting to changes like remote working, video conferencing and social distancing in the time of the pandemic.
People have been lauded for being able to adapt to these changes and being “resilient”, as they change their working habits to quickly adapt to the pandemic. But as the pandemic dragged on, with nary a definite end in sight, the opposite seems to be happening.
A report by EngageRocket, a cloud-based software company, found that the Singaporean workforce this year is less resilient with poorer mental well-being than last year.
The company collaborated with the Institute for HR Professionals (IHRP) and the Singapore HR Institute (SHRI) for the report, collecting over 390,000 responses from about 8,000 employees from March to June. The company says this “represents the largest and consistent dataset on the state of workplace sentiment in Singapore”.
In an interview with The Edge Singapore, Leong Chee Tung, CEO and co-founder of EngageRocket, explains that this “resiliency” was defined by two metrics in their report. The first was employee confidence, i.e the confidence levels that employees had in the future of their company. “We felt that the higher the degree of confidence, the more resilient the organisation is,” Leong says.
The second metric was what Leong termed as “employee engagement”. The report used the metric of the Employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS) to measure this. This metric works by measuring the proportion of employees who are likely to promote the company (termed “promoters”) to others, compared to those who are neutral and “detractors”, who are dissatisfied with the organisation and spread negative word of mouth about it.
The report found that based on these two metrics, employee engagement declined by 14% compared to 2020.
The eNPS, which is a popular measure for employee loyalty and engagement, categorises the workforce into promoters, detractors, and those who are passive within organisations. The study found that the overall number of promoters decreased by 14%, and the number of detractors increased by 17%.
Last year, as many as 81% of employees said they were confident about the future of their organisation, but in 2021, this number has fallen to 64%.
Younger generation hit hardest
Interestingly, it is the younger generation that is being hit the hardest. One might think that being digital natives, these younger workers would be the least likely to be affected, while older workers, having been used to more traditional ways of working, would be more likely to suffer burnout after being thrown into an unfamiliar environment.
The report found that the number of workers aged 20–39 reporting healthy levels of mental well-being is also significantly lower at 56%, vs 72% of workers aged 60 and above. Only 67% of employees aged 20–39 are eager to stay on in their current organisations. In comparison, 80% of workers aged 40–59 and 78% of workers over 60 plan to stay on with their employer for the next year.
It also notes that in 2021, heavier workloads, resulting from a lack of work-from-home preparation and multiplying home obligations, have led to employees experiencing three times more burnout compared to last year.
Writing for The New York Times, organisational psychologist Adam Grant uses the term “languishing,” to describe this middle space between complete burnout and being able to thrive.
The number of languishing employees have increased, and they are more prone to feel neutral about their organisation’s future than optimistic.
This phenomenon is not limited to Singapore alone. Forbes reported in September that economists have observed what is being called the “Great Resignation”. In the US, the number of workers quitting their jobs surged at a record rate for four straight months from April to July 2021.
In an article published on Sept 8, Inc.com writer Jessica Stillman says many managers think beating the Great Resignation is all about work from home rules, what many misunderstand is that many employees have deeper concerns than just when they have to come into the office.
Stillman says holding on to employees then is not just about scheduling. “It’s about showing them their work has meaning and that the company actually cares about them as human beings,” she adds.
In Singapore, Leong observes, although employees are still showcasing high levels of productivity, it is masking their struggles and risk of burnout.
“Different segments, such as employees with school-going children, have different concerns that contribute to their disengagement. This issue cannot be simply resolved with generic, ‘one-size-fits-all’ wellness programmes,” he says.
Manager communication and support
While there are many things each company can do, depending on the sector that it is in and the nature of its business, Leong observes one common theme that increases employee confidence in the company is the presence of manager communication and support.
“Employees are more likely to be promoters (referring to the eNPS) if they get strong support from their managers,” Leong says.
And it can be as simple as just checking in on the well being of the employees and giving them constructive feedback, and Leong adds that there is a correlation between the degree and frequency of feedback given, and the likelihood of employees being promoters.
He does acknowledge that the current “work from home” environment is not conducive for managers to easily check in with employees, but this is all the more so important, as those who do not receive such check-ins from managers tend to not only fall into the neutral category but in the “detractor” category, where they not only lose confidence in the company but also share these sentiments with others, negatively affecting the company’s image.
It is not easy, Leong acknowledges, for managers to adjust to this new way of managing people. Almost overnight, bosses have had to develop a new skillset that was not required of most people managers before.
This skillset was the ability to plan and set expectations well, and manage outcomes rather than monitor input. “So, what that means is that managers now more than ever, have to set clear outcomes that they would like the teams to achieve, and almost trust the teams can do it,” says Leong.
For managers that are worried about declining performance while employees are “working from anywhere”, the survey shows otherwise. EngageRocket says remote environments are the most conducive for productivity, with 77% of remote employees reporting that they were being productive.
For those who go back to office fully, 73% of them report being productive, and surprisingly, employees in hybrid work arrangements found them to be the least conducive for productivity, with only 72% reporting that they were productive.
Furthermore, remote work seems to be a positive driver for office workers, with 46% of office workers classified as “detractors” compared to 32% of the remote workforce, and 77% of remote employees want to stay on in their current organisation vs 69% for office workers.
Purpose, autonomy, mastery
Given all these, is there a silver bullet that employers can use to retain employees and keep them engaged with the company? Probably not, but Leong does reveal what employees are looking for in a job, and by extension, what will make them be “promoters” of a company.
He notes that employees are looking for three factors in a job, namely, purpose, autonomy and mastery.
For purpose, Leong says, people may become disengaged and demotivated at work if they don’t understand, or can’t invest in, the “bigger picture”. In other words, they need to know why they do what they are doing, and not feel like a cog in the machine.
“Those who believe that they are working toward something larger and more important than themselves are often the most hard-working, productive and engaged. So, encouraging them to find purpose in their work — for instance, by connecting their personal goals to organisational targets can win not only their minds, but also their hearts,” he explains.
For autonomy, it is the need to direct your own life and work. “To be fully motivated, you must be able to control what you do, when you do it, and who you do it with,” says Leong. This also ties back to the advent of the “work-from-anywhere” point made earlier, where managers have to learn how to trust their employees to deliver outcomes without constant supervision.
“Every person is given the freedom to work in a manner that best suits them. No one is stopping them from managing their own time, collaborating with others, or taking breaks,” he adds.
Finally, mastery, which is defined by the desire to improve. If you are a motivated employee, “you’ll likely see your potential as being unlimited, and you’ll constantly seek to improve your skills through learning and practice”, says Leong.
Of course, as an employee upgrades his or her skills, it not only benefits the employee, but it can also have positive knock-on effects for the company as a whole.
For example, a customer of EngageRocket in the education sector found it challenging to engage its workforce during the early turbulent periods of the pandemic. One of the issues that hurt employee morale was the limited access to learning resources compared to the pre-pandemic era. With EngageRocket’s help, the company was able to identify that this was an important driver.
So, this organisation implemented home based learning programmes and synchronous online learning for their employees, among other things.
After this was implemented, they saw an increase in their employee engagement levels in the following survey cycle.
While there are many aspects to the employee engagement process, and different companies have different requirements that make their operating environment unique, one fundamental thing of the labour force has changed, and it is the employer/employee relationship.
As Stillman writes in her piece, workers are not just looking for higher pay, more time off, or more days at home, though those things would surely help in the short term. She adds: “They’re actually questioning the whole meaning of the daily grind. Why do we put so much of ourselves into our careers? And are we getting a fair deal from our employers in return for all this stress and heartache?”