Your ‘Covid Cohort’ Of Employees Is Less Connected Than You Thought

Leaders should double down on manager-employee relationships now to avoid a mass exodus.

We’re entering a very uncertain post-pandemic work environment, so it’s worth taking stock of your employees’ resilience and whether your company culture is helping them cope. Given the trauma and disruption many of us have experienced during the last 15 months, the employees that joined you during the pandemic—the so-called “Covid cohort”—is one group you want to closely listen to. Here at Perceptyx we conducted a research study on pre- and post-Covid hiring and onboarding experiences. We discovered some unsettling news about this cohort. They exhibit all the signs of employees that are already looking for their next job somewhere else.

Those who onboarded during the pandemic were five percentage points less likely to feel part of the team than those employees who joined before the pandemic. We saw similar findings across a number of different measures, including how effective managers were at keeping employees connected. More devastating for HR managers who like to see employee loyalty as high as possible, 10 percent fewer employees who onboarded during the pandemic compared to the prior cohort said their companies were a good place to work and they were proud to work there.

As you might expect, measures of well-being for this group also fell short. Only 64 percent of pandemic joiners thought their employer cared about their health and well-being, down seven points from the prior cohort. This was replicated across many other well-being measures.

As a manager myself and an advisor to other executives who implement employee listening programs, I am really concerned that we have a hidden crisis on our hands.

At the end of the day, retention is only as good as the strength of relationships that are formed between managers and employees. So given what we’ve found in this report, I am advising everyone to double down on finding new ways to build relationships, even when half (or all!) of your workforce might be permanently working remotely. Here are a few practical initiatives that might get you started:

  1. Avoid Officism. Officism is defined as negative attitudes toward those who decide to remain remote after people return to the physical office. Remote work can improve work-life balance, but it also has unintended negative effects: Perceptyx research shows the majority of employees are afraid of inequities that will put remote workers at long-term disadvantages, especially as it relates to being under the “performance microscope,” the lack of strong relationships with managers and team members, and barriers to career growth and development. We’ve also found some misalignment between manager and employee. Managers tend to have higher levels of officism than their employees. Officism isn’t always intentional, but it can snowball into other significant differences between the three employee groups (remote, hybrid and in-office).
  2. Put relationships at the heart of your company culture. Developing relationships over Zoom or other tech tools doesn’t come naturally for everyone. Find ways to integrate personal, one-on-one or small-group touches into the day-to-day.
  3. Rely on and support your Gen Z workers. Separate research by Perceptyx shows that the Gen Z cohort is one of the groups most eager to return to the physical office and reconnect with their co-workers. For both those who want to return and those who stay remote, build those relationships and listen to what they’re asking for.
  4. Start a new initiative aimed at remote worker onboarding with your HR director. Strategic listening programs — and particularly, a well-designed onboarding survey program — can give you essential details about how deep the connectedness problem runs in your organization. Once you have that data, you can take tangible steps to adjust the culture and make remote workers feel more welcome.
  5. Make listening a critical skill required of managers. Active listening is a skill that can be learned, it’s not a matter of “you have it or you don’t.” Listening connects people on a deep, personal level. Just demonstrating that you’ve listened, usually by taking action on specific feedback, will drive connectedness.
  6. Review your benefits package with your HR director. Are these benefits aimed at the workforce you have now with unique post-pandemic needs? Our research shows that the pandemic shifted priorities for what employees are looking for at work. Whereas pay rate and promotions were most important to pre-pandemic employees, well-being and flexible work schedules were cited by those onboarded during the pandemic. In some cases you should consider how women have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. For example, we’ve found that compared to six months ago, 48 percent of women are less likely to want to return to the physical workplace full-time.
  7. Find new ways to foster community among pandemic hires and the entire staff. The pandemic has taken a toll, both physically and mentally, and it will take time for people to establish the same close ties they might have had before the shutdown. Virtual events in some formats may work, but getting people some non-Zoom facetime could be even more effective.

We’ll be closely monitoring how this Covid cohort progresses and what kind of retention outcomes we see in the year to come. There’s already an established set of pandemic cliches we all use: there’s a “new normal,” or “it’ll never be like it was.” Certainly that applies to the workplace, whether you work in a fully remote, hybrid or physical workspace. But adjusting to the new normal will take authentic, directed listening—both long-term and in short cycles—aimed at informing smart action plans so that we really can get back to normal. If you do it right, you might see higher levels of employee engagement than you had before this all started.