Employee engagement is the foundation of any successful organization. Engaged employees are happier, less stressed and more productive than those that aren’t. It’s a pretty simple equation. However, only 1/3 of American workers fall into this category. Sadly, this statistic has remained fairly constant over the last 20 years due to

  • advancement in technology
  • shifts in communication styles
  • a gap in soft skills
  • a lack of leadership at all levels of an organization

And then 2020 layered on the instability, change and anxiety of the Pandemic. We’re clearly experiencing an employee engagement crisis and it is affecting all employee levels, from the new hire to the CEO. So, how do we pull ourselves out of this slump? By understanding the driving factors that have left the US workforce feeling unconnected, unheard, unappreciated, and ultimately disengaged.

Technology and Engagement

Smartphones, tablets, laptops, and cloud-based services are the backbone of business today. They’ve greatly enhanced our ability to accomplish more work in a much shorter amount of time. Today’s employers are benefiting from this increased ability to produce, but what does it mean for the employee? The relaxed boundaries between work and home create higher expectations for how much can be accomplished in a given amount of time, creating increased employee stress. Some stress is healthy for the human brain, but too much stress results in anxiety, exhaustion, disengagement, and poor performance.

We’ve seen first hand over the last year how the blurred lines between work and home can create increased stress. When the Pandemic sent everyone home to work last March, it was a shock for many. And by the end of the summer, almost 50% of the adult workforce was experiencing anxiety and depression due to the stress of the Pandemic.

The Pandemic, Engagement and Communication Styles

Engagement is also affected by communication styles. Portable devices save us a lot of time, but as a result, we’ve developed a mentality of impatience, which greatly interferes with our ability to communicate effectively. We often value expediency over effectiveness and place little importance on face-to-face interactions. Instead, we focus on texting and emailing. The problem is that in our hurry to convey a message in as few words as possible, unintended miscommunication often occurs. I’m sure we’ve all experienced how the simple act of incorrect punctuation or auto correct has resulted in communication that at best is amusing, and at worst, is offensive.

To really understand the issue, consider the work of UCLA Professor Albert Mehrabian. His reasearch concluded that only 7% of a message is derived from the actual content of the message. The rest is body language and how we speak it. So, content alone can’t accurately convey the meaning or feeling behind a message. And yet, more often than not, that’s exactly how we communicate.

The Impact of the Millennials & Gen Z

The millennials are playing a major role in this communication shift, and Gen Z will as well. They grew up learning to communicate through text, email, and even video games, and are often more comfortable interacting with their phones than with other humans. Because millennials and Gen Z will make up 75% of the workforce by 2030, it’s important to understand the implications of how they communicate. The more heavily people rely on communicating via smartphone or computer, the less we utilize our people skills. And these skills are actually what help to create environments that people want to work in.

People skills are also absolutely necessary for effective communication and the Pandemic has contributed to issues here as well. Virtual meetings allow us to socially distance. However, they’ve also managed to put face-to-face interactions are on the endangered species list. It’s concerning because skills that we don’t use often, atrophy just like muscles.

Soft Skills and the Pandemic

Advanced technology and a focus on written messaging are creating a major disconnect in work relationships. And the Pandemic has exacerbated the issue. Virtual teams popped up overnight in 2020, and everyone scrambled to make it work without a template to follow. Although there are a lot of pros to working virtually, in general it’s difficult to truly connect with each other through a screen. And this is leading to lack of belonging at work.

When people don’t feel like they belong, stress increases and people disengage. Stressed brains don’t allow for higher reasoning to take place. This means it’ll be harder to utilize soft skills like empathy, flexibility, positivity. And yet, these are the ‘soft skills’ that play a major role in both an individual and organization’s success. In fact, 85% of job success comes from having well-developed soft skills. Tech skills and knowledge only account for 15% of success.

Leadership and Employee Engagement

We believe the fourth factor that is affecting employee engagement is a lack of leadership at all organizational levels. Most people equate leadership with a position and the ability to supervise them. But leadership is actually about honesty, integrity, vision, empathy, and connecting with others. None of that speaks to position or title. Leadership, then should apply to every person, in every role, at every level of every organization.

Positional leaders in an organization have the greatest responsibility for driving employee engagement, though, and creating environments in which a culture of leadership-at-all-levels can exist. They’re actually responsible for 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores. And yet the reality is that many managers don’t receive the training and development required to lead people. The Pandemic has made leading even harder because virtual teams are harder to manage than in person teams.


It’s obvious that there’s a lot to consider when trying to get to the bottom of why US employees are struggling to stay engaged. But for sure, advancements in technology, a shift in how we communicate 1:1, a gap in soft skills and a lack of leadership are four major contributors. And the Pandemic has just made all that worse. So how do we work toward better engagement? 

First, you have to make people and their needs a priority. Humans want community, even at work. We want to belong, know we matter and understand how our role is important to the organizational vision.  And this has been more difficult to achieve since the Pandemic began. The reality, though, is that if these needs aren’t met, we shut down, becoming disengaged.

We know this past year has been difficult, but focusing on developing your people is the way out of the darkness. If you’re interested in improving the employee engagement of a team, department, unit, or entire organization,

contact us today. We provide targeted training and coaching to increase effective communication, build soft skills, and develop leaders at all levels of the organization. 

The Culture (R)evolution starts with you!  

Originally published June 4, 2020.

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