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Employee trust is a welcome silver lining for businesses impacted by COVID-19

Employee Engagement
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By Richard Hanson | August 9, 2021

Despite the difficulties faced by employees and employers in 2020, it has been heartening to see a growth in employee trust.

The past 12 months for employees have been at best unsettled and at worst turned upside down. Most of what was considered stable and sure in the business world changed almost overnight, with offices forced to close, and employers transitioning operations with haste to work-from-home arrangements. Employees needed to adapt with equal speed.

Physical and mental ramifications were immediately clear. According to research conducted by Willis Towers Watson at the early stages of the pandemic, 73% of employees preferred to work from home and not return to the office, citing concerns of office cleanliness and safety during their commute. Many also reported high anxiety levels (89%), new financial concerns (70%), and work distractions (67%) due to COVID-19.1 There was an immediate and wide-ranging impact on both employers and employees, presenting a unique set of challenges for the employer-employee relationship.

89%
of employees reported high anxiety levels
70%
of employees reported new financial concerns

Certain impacts of COVID-19 and changing dynamics of the employer-employee relationship are felt more obviously; time spent in online meetings, changing health policies, salary cuts, furloughs and most unfortunately job losses or business closures. However, there are also more subtle yet critical elements in this relationship that are also under pressure. Of these, one of the most at-risk elements is that of trust.

Trust in business: Bruised but not broken

The annual Edelman Trust Barometer report, released in January 2021, provided a snapshot of trust in business institutions globally. The report found that the pandemic has prompted a wave of mistrust in all four of the institutions captured in the report – government, business, the media and non-governmental organisations. Interestingly, businesses fared comparatively well, being named the most trusted institution among the four.

The fact that business has risen to the top of these trust rankings may not necessarily come as a surprise given the criticism levelled at governments and media throughout the crisis. It should also be noted that Edelman found only 59% of respondents trusted business to ‘do the right thing’, leaving plenty of room for improvement. However, if we look at traditional employee insights data throughout 2020, we find that employee opinions are generally more favourable to employers than the norms seen prior to 2020. There is indication of a kind of ‘COVID bounce’ with more positive sentiment during 2020 than in years past.

Looking deeper into the comparison between 2020 employee survey data and the norm of typical scores predating 2020, the highest increase is seen in four of the aspects of employee experience that reflect employee connection – collaboration, inspiration, inclusion and… trust!2

This graphic shows our High-Performance Employee Experience (HPEX) model and increases in 2020,
particularily for Inspiration +5.2, Inclusion +4.2, Collaboration +4.0 and Trust +3.7.
High-Performance Employee Experience (HPEX) model and gains to each area during the pandemic

Source: Willis Towers Watson Employee Opinion Norm Database

Within the aspect of trust specifically, the areas with the largest positive swing reflected the actions of employers in communicating openly and honestly with employees, as well as trusting their employees’ judgement.

This positive increase in trust is a boon for businesses. We know that a high-performance employee experience, and specifically employee trust, is a top predictor for business performance, revenue and customer satisfaction, as well as efficiency and productivity.

We know that a high-performance employee experience, and specifically employee trust, is a top predictor for business performance.

Overall, this comparative research suggests that employees acknowledged the efforts of their employers to steer through unprecedented challenges. Perhaps in some way also recognising that everyone has been in the same boat. While business leaders have been required to take high velocity operational, financial and regulatory decisions in an uncertain environment, employees have been forced to adapt with equal speed to the delicate, if not impossible, balancing act between personal and professional responsibilities. In that sense, COVID-19 may have acted as a galvanising force.

Impact of the new normal on the trust dynamic

In the near term, if we momentarily view the bigger picture beyond trust alone, the survey data also acts as a report card of sorts. Employers should continue to perform well in areas they receive positive reviews, such as connecting people more effectively with each other and with organisational purpose. On the other hand, they must work hard to improve in areas such as goal-setting processes, pay packages, manager capabilities, operational systems and company-wide policies, which are simply not possible to transform in a matter of weeks, but which employees nonetheless expect them to deliver over time.

In the medium term, we talk of the ‘new normal' – the state to which economies and societies settle following a crisis, when this differs from the situation that prevailed prior to the start of the crisis. As far as trust is concerned, businesses should be mindful of how this new normal might influence or even change certain aspects of the trust dynamic. For example, does a transition to the remote working world impact traditional forms of trust building? Will the same in-person gestures, body language and actions which traditionally inspired trust, survive this transition?

Businesses should be mindful of how this new normal might influence or even change certain aspects of the trust dynamic.

Leading the way forward

Decisions made by companies during the pandemic and beyond, concerning employees, customers, suppliers and the communities in which they operate, will not simply have short term implications. We live in an ever more interconnected world, where employees or suppliers may also be customers. Any company must be cognizant of the fact that poorly considered decisions, even if they address immediate circumstances, might ultimately impact perceptions of the company in the long-term, thereby impacting trust.

To meet this challenge, leaders will need to be open-minded towards new processes, principles and behaviours to ensure corporate resilience and sustainability.

If the decisions and actions of an organisation can adequately balance the interests of all stakeholders – customers, employees, shareholders, suppliers and also society as a whole – then the galvanising effects of COVID-19 we saw through 2020, might ultimately act as a catalyst for alignment of value across all stakeholders, built on a foundation of greater trust.


Sources

1 Willis Towers Watson Employee Opinion Norm Database – August 2020

2 Employee Engagement Surveys April-October 2020 and Global Employee Opinion Norm Database April 2019-March 2020

Author

Head of Data Science, Talent and Rewards

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