Key HR considerations for 2021: Maintaining employee engagement during Covid-19

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For organisations across the country, mid-March was the last time since many employees have been in their workplaces. It would have been inconceivable this time last year to think that so many employees would be remote working for most of this year. But if 2020 has taught us anything it is that businesses are far more adaptable and versatile than we previously considered.

Derek McKay, Managing Director of Adare Human Resource Management believes that it’s highly likely that tens of thousands of employees will continue to work remotely well into 2021, which presents more challenges for employers and HR leaders.

The festive season is a natural close-out to the year with employees winding down, relaxing and preparing for the New Year – particularly after such a rollercoaster 2020. But we’re not out of the woods yet, re-energising employees will be a challenge. So, what can employers do to help motivate and engage employees?

During the early phases of the Covid-19 lockdown there was a general sense of camaraderie, which translated through to colleagues. There was a certain novelty about working from home and coffee over Zoom proved to be an excellent way for people to stay in touch. Organisations moved quickly to provide the resources needed by employees to work from home, which instilled a feeling of confidence. However, by September and October a sense of fatigue was becoming more evident.

There has been research to show that employees are working an average of two hours and 40 minutes longer each day while working from home[1] and that there is a blurring of work and home life. But as an employer, how can you ensure you support your staff appropriately and keep them engaged?

What is Employee Engagement?

Employee engagement can be defined as the mental and emotional connection employees feel towards their places of work, all of which drive their motivation, productivity and ultimately efficiencies. Over a quarter (28%) of Organisations surveyed as part of the 2020 HR Barometer identified remote working practices as one of the top challenges in 2021, which is why it is of no surprise that of those surveyed, 68% of organisations see employee engagement as a top priority in 2021.
Organisations looking to focus on employee engagement into 2021, they must be more innovative in their approach to employee engagement and consider how to utilise digitalised platforms. However, before looking at tactical approaches, we need to understand what drives employee engagement.

Employee Engagement Drivers

In the main employee engagement is driven under three key categories:

  1. Leadership and people management
  2. Culture
  3. Employee development

Leadership and people management are integral to the promotion of employee engagement. In order to build employee engagement, employers must instil trust in their employees and provide clarity of purpose. 

Employers and HR leaders must be visible and in touch with employees, not only fostering engagement of their employees, but demonstrating their own level of engagement in order to project the wider company vision into their employees’ every-day working practices. Maintaining continuous communication is key; the result is the ongoing building of trust and consequently employees are more likely to stay invested in the Organisations success.
By the same token people management plays a huge part in the promotion and maintenance of employee engagement, especially where there has been an influx of change to work practices, policies and procedures and resourcing during the year.

Leaders and people managers must be clear on setting employee expectations of their roles and provide clarity regarding the agreed workload, priorities and KPIs as we go into 2021.  
Managers should be flexible and be there to offer support and encouragement, particularly for those who may be struggling. Take the time now to revise policies so that they too can be flexible in the event of further change being necessitated and ensure that all employees have appropriate equipment to perform their roles and systems to endorse collaboration.

Culture has always been a major driver of employee engagement, so it is essential that there is transparency about the purpose, mission and vision of an organisation. By having a compelling purpose and direction and being clear on how each employee is an integral part of that direction, will not only embed the core values of an organisation’s culture, but it will manifest in other ways to strengthen employee engagement itself.
Given remote and flexible work practices are here to stay, this allows a focus on how performance management will be supported through digitalised means. This means that any performance management process can be realigned to the core values and altered to reflect changing work practices in the remote working space.
Performance management, when implemented correctly and efficiently can help improve the performance of employees as well as employee engagement, both of which contribute to the better operation of the organisation as a whole.

With the evolution of employee engagement now having to be supported through technology, organisations must ensure any performance management process is more innovative in order to be supported through new platforms with a focus on the values and culture of the organisation.

Investment in employee development has a significant impact on employee engagement. The way an employer addresses the needs of employees as well as their development instils a commitment to employee engagement which can positively impact on productivity and efficiencies.

Organisations must encourage employees to build time into their day or week to further their professional development and then provide them with the tools necessary to support that development and promote collaborative learning, which in turn impacts on effective team functioning. This is particularly important at present when it’s likely some employees feel neglected or disconnected.

Adapting to change is a skill in itself and with the future less certain, it is essential that employees are equipped to navigate future change. Provide learning experiences that support shifts in priorities, strategy or revised work processes. Embrace talent upskilling programmes that align with the shift in strategy and further develop the skillset and competencies of employees to further the engagement agenda.


Employee engagement has a number of benefits; better retention, improved productivity and boosted staff morale.

The benefits of employee engagement will start to manifest when employees are clear on organisational purpose, expectations of their roles and the impact of their function to the overarching strategic objectives, are supported as a whole and communicated with regularly, all of which bind the employee with the values and culture of the organisation and promote employee engagement.

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[1] Irish Heart Foundation research. The Irish Times 31st August 2020.