Devon Loch’s famous belly flop, with Dick Francis aboard. Photo: AP via The Guardian

I’m an avid fan of British thriller writer Dick Francis, who started life as a jump jockey, and then became an international best-selling author after he retired from his career as a champion race rider. If you love a good thriller that combines bucolic British scenes with truly loathsome bad guys, you can’t go wrong with a Francis book.

A conversation I had with our CEO Stefan Wissenbach reminded me of one of the most famous moments of Francis’ storied riding career – the 1956 Grand National, in which he was riding the Queen Mother’s horse, Devon Loch.

As the end of the grueling race neared, Francis had Devon Loch in the lead. Even on the grainy YouTube videos, you can hear the swell of the crowd’s cheers – the Royal horse was a crowd favorite.

Then suddenly, inexplicably, well clear of the field and just yards from the finish line, Devon Loch pancaked, sliding on his belly, legs splayed. The horse arose, unhurt, but far too late – the field had passed them by and the race was lost.


Back to my conversation with Stefan, the gist of which was this: business leaders are about to be hit out of the blue with employee issues they never saw coming, and the tragedy is that this will occur just as businesses are poised for recovery and need all hands on deck. 

2021 – a wholly different employee landscape 

We were discussing the rapid changes in employee engagement trends for 2021 and its underlying drivers, which have shifted significantly from career-oriented drivers (e.g. professional development, career pathing) to the drivers that relate to an individual’s experience (manager support, concern for one’s health and well-being.)

Employee engagement trends historically are incremental, shifting slightly year over year. 2021 is an exception. The changes we have seen over the last year are seismic in comparison to prior years – and that is something leaders need to note.

For the last 10 months, company heads have been faced with unrelenting challenges and changes affecting their businesses – and in many cases, they have not had a single minute to pause and evaluate the impact upon employees.

Many have had no cause to do so. Generally speaking, during the pandemic, employee engagement has been high, reaching record levels in the summer of 2020. However, that engagement was driven significantly by the common enemy – Covid-19 – and the imperative all felt to fight for the survival of businesses and livelihoods.

However, now, at the beginning of 2021, it’s important that leaders read the signals showing up in employee engagement data and corresponding trends. The uniting effect of the pandemic has waned, and many organizations are experiencing first-hand the effects of the Covid Trap – a phenomenon that Stefan predicted early in the pandemic. The unifying effect is gone, and employee engagement has slipped from the highs attained last summer and returned to pre-Covid levels.

However, there’s more – much more in fact – to the changes we’re seeing in employee engagement trends and what elements of the employee experience people are prioritizing. The top engagement trend for 2021 – a sense of belonging – underscores the differences in what employees value now, versus what they considered important just one year ago.

Pause now and evaluate your business through the lens of your employees 

These changes in employee priorities are precisely why Stefan believes leaders who haven’t assessed the health of their organization’s culture and employee engagement need to do so now, especially in the context of the efforts many leaders have made to keep their businesses going and employees on the payroll during the Covid crisis.

However, the shift in employee priorities to those that focus on an individual’s wellbeing, safety, and manager support indicate clearly that these areas are where employees are feeling least confident, and are in need of more assurance and focused action from their employers.

Failing to evaluate how the pandemic has affected employees could be a critical mistake. In addition to the changes they have bourne at work, their home lives have been altered as well, compounding the effects of stress, isolation, and uncertainty. Understanding how employees are doing, where they are struggling, which managers are leading well through the crisis and which are not – all ultimately impact business performance.

“To actually fail at the final hurdle is a real tragedy because you’ve endured the financial pain, the long hours, the difficult decisions and everything else – and this problem will be the thing that derails you as you come out of this if you don’t get ahead of it,” Stefan said in our discussion. “Some businesses don’t think this is worth the time and effort to survey employees and see where they stand. And they are completely misguided because, for very little additional effort, they can actually get ahead of this final hurdle and come out of this strong and actually reap the rewards for all of the good stuff they did. But if they miss out on this final piece of the puzzle, they actually risk jeopardizing all that hard work and strive – and ultimately, the business’s ability to recover. It could be a monumental waste of effort.”

The kicker is the simple fact that people are adjusting quickly to this new normal, and are increasingly likely to make a job change if they grow disengaged. Company leaders who take employees for granted and believe that the slow down in the job market will insulate them from the risk of employees leaving the company could be in for a very rude awakening – just when they need their teams the most.