(Photo by Fizkes/iStock by Getty Images)

During the past year of massive economic and social upheaval, it would perhaps seem reasonable to assume that workers who had retained employment–in the midst of a worldwide pandemic–would remain committed to keeping those jobs, bolstered by a sense of security and, in many cases, good fortune.

Yet a new study from the Workforce Institute, the research and insights arm of HR engagement platform Achievers, yielded some startling results. The institute’s 2021 Engagement and Retention Report, the fourth annual study, surveyed 2,000 respondents throughout the US and Canada across an array of sectors and tenure.

“One of the first findings that was a little surprising was the uptick in the percentage of employees who claimed they’d be putting their ear to the ground for a job hunt in 2021, compared to 2020,” said Brie Harvey, Achievers’ Employee Engagement Evangelist, speaking in a recent From Day One webinar.

“According to the survey, more than half of employees will be hitting up the job boards for opportunities to potentially jump ship, which is an increase of more than 40% from the previous year,” Harvey said.

Natalie Baumgartner, Chief Workforce Scientist for Achievers, explained how, “after compensation and benefits, work-life balance was the second-highest motivator that employees cited, with one in four employees naming that as the main reason that they would jump on in 2021. Now, that’s a pretty high number, especially when you consider the fact that many of us might have assumed that working from home would improve work-life balance.”

Natalie Baumgartner, Chief Workforce Scientist (Photo courtesy of Achievers)

“However, with schools still closed in many regions, on top of other stressors related to the pandemic,” Baumgartner said. “It’s really become clear over the past several months that many employees are struggling significantly with work-life balance.”

“So let’s look at what’s keeping people at their current companies. Get this: Work-life balance was cited as the No. 1 factor motivating people to stay in their current role ... We just spoke about how it’s a motivator to leave. But when it’s working, it’s also a major factor driving retention,” Baumgartner said.

She added: “Employers really need to keep a laser focus on work-life balance as both a recruitment and retention strategy.”

To do that, she said, employers must realize that the workplace has fundamentally changed and will never return to previous norms. Many more factors must be taken into account given the realities moving forward to increase engagement and retention, foster company culture, and adapt to new conditions on every level. Three quarters of respondents reported working from home during the pandemic, and the issue of ‘remote or hybrid workforce?’–it’s not going away,” Baumgartner said.

“Forty-two percent of the respondents in our study said that their company culture has diminished since the onset of the pandemic,” Baumgartner said. “Now, you may be saying: That’s not surprising, we’re in a pandemic. But we wanted to learn specifically what was driving that feeling. And the data told us most employees place blame on a lack of impactful communication, and also on a lack of effort to make remote employees feel connected.”

Fostering that connection involves several key elements: investing in proper technology to unite remote workers, improving communication between managers and employees, proper recognition, and soliciting and acting on feedback from workers.

“HR has to own up to the fact that taking time to gather stakeholders and ensure your survey’s asking the right questions, and administering surveys and analyzing the results–it’s all a colossal waste of time if feedback isn’t consistently being acted on,” said Harvey. “So there’s really just no better way to show your employees that you don’t care about them or their opinion by asking them to take time out of their day and give you the benefit of their observations–and then doing nothing with it.”

“So when I hear HR leaders talk about the risk of survey fatigue, it honestly drives me crazy, because there is no such thing as survey fatigue. It doesn’t exist. What employees suffer from–and the real thing HR should be concerned about–is inaction fatigue.”

She added: “When we look at what changed from 2020 to 2021 is that more companies are prioritizing and putting energy towards acting on feedback ... We jumped from 9% to 16% of employees claiming their employer is awesome at acting on feedback. And although that’s actually really wonderful, it also tells the story that an overwhelming majority of organizations have more work to do to bridge the gap.”

Brie Harvey, Employee Engagement Evangelist (Photo courtesy of Achievers)

That bridge should involve employers looking at the emergence of new challenges and demands faced by employees–as well as their expectations from management. Much of that centers on re-imagining workspaces, incorporating hybrid working conditions, and figuring out how to strike that elusive balance between personal and professional.

“Balance is crucial,” Baumgartner reiterated at the end of the webinar. “For both recruitment and retention, employees want to know that they’ll be able to meet their personal obligations like child care, elder care, as well as just having downtime to rest and recover. So start by asking employees, either in one-to-one meetings or through a quarterly pulse survey, whether they feel they’re able to balance their work and their personal commitments.”

“If they’re not,” she advised, “ask them how they could be better supported. And remember–that balance starts at the top. So make sure that your leaders and your managers, they’re taking vacation and shutting off in the evenings and on the weekends to model that for others.”

Lack of balance and inability to monitor dissatisfaction from the top down, Baumgartner said, will surely lead to a lack of engagement, which leads to a lack of retention and has a snowball effect.

“Particularly during these precarious times, deep disengagement can truly be catastrophic,” she said. “And to that point, our studies show that 70% of those not likely to job search are engaged, or very engaged. So a big call to action for leaders is to acknowledge that there’s never been a more critical time to put energy into reimagining your engagement strategy. And success begins with setting the expectation with leaders, that they’re accountable for the engagement of their team. We have to ensure that leaders understand how engagement influences every aspect of their success and, thus, the success of your business ... Engagement is exceptionally fluid, and it changes throughout the course of a single day, let alone over weeks or months or years.”

Editor's note: From Day One thanks our partner who sponsored this webinar, Achievers. You can watch a video of the conversation here. Please visit our conference page to register for more upcoming events.

Sheila Flynn is a Chicago-based journalist who has written for the Associated Press, the Sunday Independent, the Irish Daily Mail and the Irish Times. She is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame