For many organizations, keeping a lid on the employee turnover rate was a real bear, up until the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Almost overnight, retention issues took a back seat as everyone aligned and was unified in the effort to defeat the common enemy – the virus that was sweeping its way around the world. During the lockdown period, employee engagement hit record highs, as employees strove to keep the lights on for their employers while economic conditions tightened. The turnover rate wasn’t a concern.

This period of high engagement produced dazzling results, leading employers to start thinking about evolving their sales, service, and supply chain models and to consider remote work as a standard operating procedure. Their teams were tackling every new change sent their way with previously unimagined speed.

In the late spring, our founder, Stefan Wissenbach, waved a red flag. The pandemic was creating temporarily high levels of employee engagement, as employees rallied around a new purpose defined by the pandemic. The Covid Trap, as he called the phenomenon, was lulling leaders into a false sense of security, and that engagement levels would drop as the pandemic wore on.

He proved prescient – as of this writing, average engagement scores have dropped to an average of 69, well off the record high of 79 we recorded in May.

The pandemic created a higher level of short term engagement, alignment, and loyalty – but that’s ending

The high engagement scores we saw over the spring and summer were not unique to Engagement Multiplier clients. Gallup also reported wild swings in their engagement data, recording a record drop and then increase within the same month. However, we’re now several months further into living with the pandemic, and people are adjusting to the new normal.

This means expectations are normalizing, and with normalization, employer and employee expectations may fall out of alignment. What does this mean? In short, it means turnover rates are poised to creep upward. Why? Instead of the unity of purpose experienced in the first months of the pandemic, employers’ and employees’ expectations are evolving, and are no longer in lock-step. The salary freezes and spending cuts that were accepted at the beginning of the pandemic, for example, will be scrutinized by employees, especially if business results are rebounding. The remote work experience will be under a similar lens. Self-interest will re-assert itself.

Employees are beginning to feel safer, and that means they’ll be more comfortable looking for a new job – unless you give them good reasons to stay.

1. Ignoring the red flags that signal growing employee discontent

Waning morale, declining work quality or productivity, projects veering off-track — all of these have root causes that need to be identified and addressed. Spotting the symptoms early and taking action to find out the causes, and what support your employees may need from you, will help prevent departures before they happen.

2. Not engaging with key employees, and ignoring team engagement overall

Assessing employee engagement levels with enough granularity to allow leaders to pinpoint which managers or teams are struggling is the first step to improving engagement levels. The second step is to take focused action to improve the employee experience, which is inextricably connected to employee engagement and retention.

3. Attempting to resolve problems without first understanding what’s causing them.

Pizza parties will not return teams to productivity. No one stays with a company because they get donuts on Friday.

Communication that goes both ways, with leaders being open and transparent about expectations and the health of their organizations, and employees having a platform to anonymously voice their concerns, is key to understanding what’s really happening with your business. Without open communication, you won’t be privy to the real challenges your employees face that affect their job performance, and you won’t have the chance to support them. Don’t guess – ask!

4. Not respecting the impact that Covid and the geopolitical environment are having on people

In 2016, Gallup reported a decline in employee engagement after the US presidential election amongst employees who self-identified with the losing political party. Given all that’s happened in 2020 and the continued uncertainty, expecting ‘business as usual’ from employees who are working at home, during a global crisis, with no childcare or school, is unrealistic, if not unfair. Caring leaders will acknowledge this and do what they can to mitigate employee stress. This isn’t to say everyone gets a pass on doing their work. But it does mean that you need to think outside the box when it comes to finding ways to support your employees so they can continue giving you their best work. Compassion and support will be remembered (and valued) long after the crisis is over.

5. Not having regular communication or regular routines

One thing we’ve done early-on at Engagement Multiplier is to keep our most important routines — our weekly meetings, our main touch-points. We set expectations and goals and troubleshoot problems in a structured way, on a regular basis (learn more about our EPIC Meetings™ structure and our secrets for more productive meetings), keeping everyone on the same page and feeling connected without feeling micromanaged.

In fact, our meeting structure improves our ability to “manage by outcome.” Managing by outcome means evaluating work on the outcomes achieved, not by hours worked. We suggest giving employees strategic projects they can work on themselves, or with a small team where they are given the flexibility to figure things out on their own. Regular communication and routines allow you to give more autonomy to employees within their roles, which is an important driver of engagement and retention.

6. Not having visual contact with employees

Face-time with employees remains important, even if it’s over a video call. Treat your team as a community and bring them together. If your team is working remotely, we recommend having a brief call with all of them at least once a day (our own team meets twice, to begin and end the day together.) This will open up communication, and reinforce the “we’re in this together” spirit of camaraderie.

Create new alignment – with purpose

Leaders can prevent the collapse of alignment we describe by redoubling the focus on the company’s purpose. The alignment a strong core purpose creates is deftly summed up in a recent article from the Harvard Business Review, entitled “Why Are We Here?”

“A truly powerful purpose statement is one that achieves two objectives: clearly articulating strategic goals and motivating your workforce. These objectives are important individually and synergistically. When your employees understand and embrace your organization’s purpose, they’re inspired to do work that not only is good—and sometimes great—but also delivers on your stated aims.”

To bring the company’s purpose back into focus for individuals, focus on the contribution each person can make, and create opportunities to celebrate wins. This isn’t just a Millennial thing – employees of all ages value working for a purpose-driven firm.