Research over the past several decades shows that employee engagement is related to a wide range of important organisational outcomes — including absences; turnover; individual, group, and organisational performance; and total shareholder returns.

Despite some lingering disagreement about the precise definition of engagement, there is little disagreement that it is critical to organisational success. Since COVID-19 made remote work nearly ubiquitous, organisations are focusing on cultivating employee engagement more than ever before. Hogan surveyed workers across 13 European countries and gleaned some interesting insights about engagement in the COVID-19 era.

The results are striking: 86 per cent of 495 respondents indicated that they are engaged or very engaged, 83 per cent indicated that their organisations acted quickly to identify pandemic-related challenges, and 80 per cent indicated overall satisfaction with how their organisations reacted to the crisis. By contrast, consultancies that focus on measuring employee engagement suggest that engagement among global workers typically hovers around 40 per cent to 65 per cent.

Engaged and unengaged employees responded to organisational and managerial actions differently. For example, 41 per cent of unengaged and 75 per cent of very unengaged employees indicated that their organisations have not motivated teams to work toward goals while working remotely. By contrast, engaged and very engaged employees were far more likely (70 per cent and 78 per cent, respectively) to indicate that their organisations successfully motivated teams. Similarly, 75 per cent who reported being very unengaged indicated that they were not getting enough support from their direct managers, while 77 per cent of those indicating that they were very engaged said the opposite. Clearly, broad organisational actions and support from direct managers vary with respondents’ reported engagement levels.

Productivity has not suffered with the shift to remote work. Of those who responded, 86 per cent indicated that their productivity is the same as or greater than it was prior to the shift. The less engaged respondents reported being, the more likely they were to indicate that they are less productive than when working in the office, but even very unengaged employees were more likely than not to report that they think they are more productive now than when they worked in the office.

Collaboration and communication are the biggest opportunities for improvement. Sixty percent of respondents reported that remote collaboration is more mentally challenging than in-person collaboration, regardless of employee age, country, company size, or employee engagement level.

Additionally, although most (61 per cent) indicated that they are getting enough support from their direct manager, almost a third report that, while they feel supported, their manager could do better. Three-fourths of those who are unengaged indicated that communication between managers and employees is more challenging remotely, and more engaged workers reported more frequent contact with their managers. Similarly, about half of those who responded that they are unengaged say they do not reach their colleagues as often as before, whereas more than half of those who are engaged or very engaged reported that they talk to colleagues every day and sometimes multiple times per day. Counterintuitively, younger workers who grew up with digital communication tools were as likely as older workers to cite remote collaboration as the biggest mental challenge.

Managers have the opportunity to facilitate improvements in these areas. Consider Hogan’s leadership value chain, which is based on more than 30 years’ worth of data on job performance and leadership effectiveness: A leader’s personality drives behaviors that affect trust; his or her values drive rewards and sanctions, which create culture; and his or her preferences and unconscious biases impact decision-making.

Trust, culture, and decision-making help drive team engagement, which in turn drives engagement. Think of communication and collaboration as the fuel for building trust, understanding others’ values, and gaining the necessary input to broaden managers’ perspectives and diminish the impact of their unconscious biases. The better the communication and collaboration, the more positive the impact on the team — and the more likely that engagement will build. Our survey results suggest that managers can make a difference in three key areas: communication, networking, and manager support.

First, people differ in how much they value frequent communication, their preferences for the mode of communication, and the topics they’re interested in communicating about. Managers need to listen carefully and attend to what people are saying and when they seem most or least enthusiastic. It would be a mistake for managers to think about communication as something they do to their employees rather than something they do with them. Even listening intently to what people have to say is an act of valuing them, which builds trust and a culture of openness.

Second, the least engaged workers from our survey tended to have tenure of one to four years. In general, this group often has fewer established networks across the organisation, thus less familiarity with and insight about “how things work around here.” Managers might foster greater engagement in this group by facilitating connections with colleagues, offering projects that help broaden their networks, and by helping them navigate company culture. This group may benefit most from organized but informal opportunities to chat with colleagues, such as virtual coffee breaks and happy hours. Often some structure is required to get the conversations started, but managers needn’t feel that they need to structure the content of conversations overall.

Finally, about one-third of workers, although generally happy with their managers’ support, indicated that it could be improved. Managers need to ask questions about what they can do more of, less of, or better. Managers shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that they need to have all the answers to these questions. Rather, they would benefit from engaging employees in discussion about solutions that would contribute to better engagement. The key for managers is, of course, follow-through. Asking the questions and collaborating on ideas for solutions might even damage engagement unless managers make commitments and follow through on them.