The Start Smart

Employee Engagement

A workforce ready for recovery

Salman Abeer, with support from Chris Payne and The Start Smart Research team

January 28, 2021

15 min read

As workforces packed up their offices and converted their employees into ‘digital nomads’
overnight, the last two weeks of March 2020 will be remembered in the history books as when
‘it’ happened. Unprepared, unpredictable and unaware, globally, humans that were able to
start working from home did so comparable to an Australian spirit we refer to as rolling up
your sleeves and giving it a go. Where employees who couldn't work from home continued to
roll up their sleeves, battling a pandemic to keep countries and economies moving.

As the reality of a vaccine approaches closer, and Australia is almost ready for normal life,
leaders across the board are left with the burning question, do employees start 2021 like 2020
never happened? Navigating options to bring everyone back into the bustling CBD offices,
perhaps asking HR teams to arrange a welcome back goodie pack, perhaps introduce two days
of working from anywhere as an ongoing initiative. Whatever the post pandemic soft approach
may be, alignment of goals with the workforce is at an all time low, as shown in Exhibits 1.1,
1.2 and 1.3.

Exhibit 1.1
Exhibit 1.2
Exhibit 1.3

Independent polling of employees across Australia by The Start Smart Insight X - 10000 Responses Excluding Sample and Negligible data

We have been asking questions and actively polling employees and employers since April
2020, and they continue to demonstrate a misalignment between employers and employees in
key areas such as objectives, expectations, technologies and resilience. Both sentimentally and
quantitatively, employees have reflected in our various polling, sentimental analysis and data
gathering efforts, an event such as the pandemic requires a joint effort to realign and inspire
workforces to recover together - without which even the greatest of recovery initiatives are
bound to fail. This overview seeks to dissect the importance of employee engagement and
how employee engagement can be measured, tracked and placed into action items as a part of
organisational recovery from the pandemic.

Employee engagement, without the rose colored lens.

After almost a year of working from a screen with a webcam and microphone as the core
medium of interaction, there are a few fundamental questions that need to be asked:

  • What does it mean to be an employee of an organisation in a world where skills are
    translated into various technologies for functions to continue?

  • Have employees largely become technology operators?

  • Or are they still the brand evangelists? - loyal and engaged to the organisation they
    work for ?

The answers puzzle you. There is a portion of employees that are ready to take on 2021,
leading initiatives in their organisations. Another group no longer feels attached to their
employer and do not believe there is a particular reason to stick with their organisation.
They look outward, and plan to use their skills in other industries, perhaps even remotely,
elsewhere across the globe.

Engagement levels in employees is low, however this does not mean employees are upset or
depressed (we come back to wellbeing at a later stage) - nor does it mean people are not
doing any of their work, it is simply a shared sentiment that engagement is no longer correlated
with brand evangelism, or job titles.

Job tiled based skills can now be transferred into emerging categories given the technological
evolutions the world has faced since the pandemic started, Several metrics that suggest
brand engagement over employee engagement is now redundant. Undertaking
initiatives without fully understanding the engagement levels of employees within the
workplace will lead to greater levels of misalignment however well intentioned the
initiatives may be. We matched responses to show the misaligned relationships below,
Exhibits 2.1 and 2.2.

Exhibit 2.1
Exhibit 2.2

Transparency, Honesty and Accountability.

Transparency, Honesty and Accountability aren't new wisdom, however we have been asking
about the importance of the 3 pillars in the modern workplace.With 77.37% of respondents
emphasising the importance of the pillars, the remainder didn’t suggest it's not important - they
emphasised the execution of the pillars are of greater importance than the elements themselves.
So why bring these traditional organisational pillars into a neo view of employee engagement ?

Simple.Transparency, Honesty and Accountability are more important than ever, and it starts
at the strategic layer of an organisation, where the values and actions of leaders permeate
through the core and into the everyday operational constitution of workplaces.

Transparency allows employees to be inspired and be “in the know” of both the negatives and
the positives of their workplace, when to anticipate a win and when to put up their
resilient shield to become tackle challenges effectively.

Honestly allows employees to be a part of the discussion. Organisations of today faced a
plethora of challenges pre-covid. Adding a pandemic to the mix complicates that even
further. There are risk takers at every level who get to take part - through execution and
thought leadership when they are operating within an honest ecosystem.

Accountability allows employees to be aware of the percentage of their outcome contribution
to the overall achievements of their team, projects, workplace and organisation. The culture of
accountability is a vital element of the post-covid workplace.

Transparency, Honesty and Accountability are reflected in employee engagement, Exhibit 3 of
our questions show, transparency, honesty and accountability within workplaces correlated to
low employee engagement. One doesn't work without the other, as
a part of the employee engagement equation.

Exhibit 3

Back to the Office or Back to work ?

Is there a fundamental difference between working from home compared to working at the
office? The answer differs by who you ask. The human interaction factor has two
schools of thought when it comes to working from home versus working in an office.
Exhibit 4.1 indicates respondents feel they are less productive working from home,
however they then contrast their productivity in Exhibit 4.2 with wellbeing - stating
going back to the office will actually decrease employee wellbeing.

So where does this leave us ? In one word, confused. Blanket rules can no longer be applied to
work habits post the pandemic period. Technology has evolved but so have the human
beings that utilise its potential. Placing a mandate on permanent work from
home or a pull back into office will drastically impact employee engagement and experience.
Structured analysis of classifying productivity and outcome from the
office versus the work from anywhere model needs to be tailored and understood by
organisational teams.

Theoretically many roles could, many perhaps have, embody a work from anywhere model.
Technology teams have often operated from remote data centers. Reducing
wastage times such as commuting and non essential gatherings within the office can
increase productivity. Equally, a task force tackling regulatory compliance issues may not have
the same ability to utilise a permanent working from home model, and need the nitty
gritty interactions to uncover the critical factor that would save the organisation millions of
dollars in future penalties. We believe each industry has a unique ability to design a
hybrid model of work, however a financial service institution is not a software company -
nor the vice versa. The debate about working from home versus a reintroduction to the
office needs to align with internal stakeholder expectations and investors.

Exhibit 4.1
Exhibit 4.2

The good and bad of a large workforces.

“Numbers do not feel. Do not bleed or weep or hope. They do not know bravery or sacrifice.
Love and allegiance. At the very apex of callousness, you will find only ones and zeros,” as
Amie Kaufman says in Illuminae, however humans do feel, and form allegiances and
are more than numbers.

At times it can be difficult to consider everyone's sentiment when it comes to large scale
operations, especially where human capital is a fundamental part of the value proposition
of an organisation. Contact centers, large retailers, commercial manufacturers,
and professional services immediately spring to mind as we talk about
qualitative human workforces.

The great part of a large workforce is the value provided by the organisation is done as a
whole and each person makes a contribution towards the value their organisation
provides. However there in large workforces, negative sentiment starts arising when
decisions made at C - Director levels do not align with the majority of the operational
workforce and given the size of the workforce the negativity often spreads like wildfire
and lead to a long circle of change and initiatives to bring employee satisfaction back to
acceptable standards, where if the decision were made using a more cohesive approach
all of these initiatives can be avoided.

We look at large workforces through a scientific principle called entropy, translated from the
second law of thermodynamics in physics (bear with us). There are a few critical
factors that need to be considered when measuring and working with entropy within business,
the chaos within an organisation, the human systematic behaviours and
processes that introduce entropy and the ability to implement systems and structures
that keeps entropy to low levels. Yes low levels not zero because like a healthy marriage
some level of disagreement is a part of life and a sign of an intellectual organisation that
doesn't just ‘go with the flow’.

In large workforces the bureaucracy, ideologies, politics and several other factors traditionally
contribute to high entropy but in the midst of a pandemic, entropy is being
introduced by subliminal decision making for collective large workforces resulting
in shocking levels of trust and engagement, and with several recovery
initiatives already planned without employee consideration, Exhibit 5 is a wake
up call for large workforces and their leaders.

Exhibit 5

Digital Fatigue, where do we stand ?

The five cardinal senses, touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste are what makes the human
experience so unique for each one of us. Digitally, we can replicate some of the
senses from behind a screen through microphones and earpieces but the ability to grab a
meal with a coworker, smell the coffee, and feel the treacherous rain during the commute
are also fundamental aspects that make work what it is. These experiences at
work are a part of what makes us human. As employees have moved towards remote
work during the pandemic, we questioned how people were coping with performing
fundamental tasks that make us human from behind a screen. We posed the following
questions to a greater audience to get a better insight on digital fatigue to showcase
the amount of systems an individual uses on a daily basis - Exhibit 6.

Exhibit 6 - Digital Fatigue induced by increased usage of Systems and Applications.

As we perform continuous polling, both sentiment* and direct responses to digital fatigue is
taking an upward trend, leaders now need a calculated approach to technology refinement
and converting certain physical interactions to become digital for the employees as, if
done without the understanding of their workforce this will be a recipe for disaster for
employee productivity and wellbeing.

Communication beyond the screen

As a part of the digital fatigue, communication effectiveness through digital channels are slowly
trending to the point of where they are now prioritised as the same regardless of what is
being communicated. As part of our research into the recovery from the global pandemic we
concluded ‘communications beyond the screen’ are an element for recovery under the factor of
“Don't Forget the Human'' Initiation of Recovery | Recovery Factors 2020 organisations now more than
ever need to understand their communication channels beyond the screen, where it is not about
the higher resolution webcam, but the greater ability to inspire and drive communication that
enable people to feel empowered to take part in the effort for recovery.

“Help!” Where do employees go?

We did say we would come back to wellbeing, so here we are, in an SOS scenario where
the employees are screaming for help, where do they go? Sure there are employee assistance
programs that allow for a level of assistance and assurance for employees who need
help however our research “Initiation of Recovery, 2020” shows that over the seven major
global catastrophe events in the last 100 years, there is a spike in the anger and negativity
within people towards the later part of the catastrophic event and the initial part post the
catastrophic event as per Exhibit 7.

Exhibit 7

Our understanding of this allows us to predict that organisations will face an increase in
people requiring support, due to the negative sentimental feeling of people post the current
pandemic. As both leaders and employees enter a new realm of workplace there needs to be an
in-depth understanding of how employees are utilising Employee Assistance Programs
that exist without which employee engagement cannot be expected to conform to the
organisation’s objectives and goals, our research shows 94.29% of employees have not
utilised or are even aware of the programs their employers have in place for Employer
Assistance, Exhibit 8.

Exhibit 8

Where are we right now ?

In our comprehensive search to understand what’s next, where we are and where to start with
Employee Engagement, we dissected and analysed all key industries and organisations in Australia
to visually represent the impact of employee engagement on an organisation’s ability to
deliver against its objectives amidst the pandemic. We created The Start Smart Employee
Engagement Quadrant.

Exhibit: The Start Smart - Employee Engagement Quadrant

We created this quadrant as an aid for leaders to benchmark their organisations against their
industries performance and understand where they are right now and where to focus employee
engagement efforts in correlation to recovery. Each position of the quadrant has critical priorities,
we would recommend understanding the quadrant in greater detail by clicking here.

Initiatives for 2021 and beyond, inspire or demand?

Inspire or Demand? For a workforce in the era of empowerment and independence, demanding
engagement and adherence to recovery initiatives is going to result in loss of talent
within the organisation and the very opposite of engagement by employees and leaders
within the organisation. Cracks have already started to appear where in our responses in
Exhibit 9.1 and 9.2.

Employees tell us that their trust in the ability of their organisation is low and their
involvement in the recovery process is even lower. It’s this employee sentiment that leads us to
plead to our C - Director level peers, Do not leave employees out of the equation, as your
organisation needs to recover and the result in making siloed decisions is burning out your
employees through initiatives they do not value. It’s time to set vanity aside and take into
consideration the feelings, sentiment and voice of employees to both assure and design
the recovery effort.

Exhibit 9.1
Exhibit 9.2

In our conclusion, we make intelligent predictions that;

  1. Will initiatives without an employee-partnered design propagate as
    a part of the organisational recovery effort ? No.

  2. Will initiatives that do not take into account employee engagement
    propagate in the current change and communication channels ? Not as effectively.

In the post-pandemic recovery period, employee engagement and unity is at an all-time low.
The ideal way to rebound engagement would be to take advantage of all available insights
and capabilities. Leaders must commit to the real essence of a data-driven workplace - where
execution with stakeholders is in mind. The ultimate test for leaders isn’t simply to
recover from the pandemic, but have the ability to ensure everyone in the organisation
recovers together - sharing the same values and goals.

As people are becoming more technology native (i.e. becoming more and more interwoven
with technology in our everyday lives) workplace leaders must recognise the different needs
that are arising. It is not enough to simply add another technology layer to uplift an organisation’s
capabilities. Any new technology initiative that the company wants to undertake
must be done so with a human centric approach because, at the end of the day, they are the
most important resource of the organisation. Similarly, technology should not be considered
a solution to a problem, rather it should be thought of as a resource that must be used
in conjunction with humans. To that end, the way to ensure maximum return on investment
is to fully engage and unite the workforce as one cohesive body.

Salman Abeer - Lead Human at The Start Smart

*The Start Smart collects, analyses and commissions its own research and does not use third party data, the following researches were used in this perspective paper.
Initiation of Recovery, 2020 | A comprehensive research into the recovery from the pandemic, utilising 10,000 responses, Multiple immersion sessions around the world, 80+ Million Records of current sentiment and historical sentiment.
Employee Engagement, 2021 | A Meta analysis of digital polls and combined research into employee engagement before, during and predictive for the post pandemic business environment.

Recent Australian
Employee Engagement Poll Data

Covid Considerations
and WFH Mobility.

75% of employees are
concerned that going back
to the office will not be
good for their overall

Employee Engagement
as a Strategic Planning

67% of employees do not
believe their organisation
is ready for the new year
after the pandemic.

Employee wellbeing
as a key to success.

84% of employees do not
feel that their voices are
equally valued in their


Explore More Polls Data


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