2021 Outlook: A New COVID Chapter for Employee Engagement

December 15, 2020

No one can deny that 2020 has felt like a lifetime, especially for employees. Whether they’re frontline workers who have been risking their health to provide essential services, office workers who have had to navigate the blurred lines, burnout and familial challenges of working from home, or among the many people who have struggled in and out of employment as industries have reconfigured, employees have experienced a rate of change both rapid and disorienting.

The rollout of the vaccine indicates that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but it doesn’t mean that this period of change has ended, only that it’s entering a new phase. The first part of 2021 will be a time when keeping employees engaged and safe will be not only a bigger challenge, but also a different one. Vaccination is at the top of the news, but it isn’t the only issue your people are watching anxiously. They’re also following changes in school policies, adjusting to renewed local shutdowns, and trying to figure out when they can make plans again.

We all know that December 2019 solutions don’t necessarily apply anymore. But neither do April 2020 ones or August 2020 ones. Organizations will need to evolve their approaches around internal communications and the employee experience to keep up with people’s changing needs, their hopes and apprehensions and their continued need to stay safe.

This is a good time to weigh the distance between the psychic break we all want and the real changes that the first 100 days of the new year will bring. People and institutions are deep into COVID fatigue. The strains on culture, relationships and morale don’t feel new or temporary anymore. Keeping vigilant will be hard, but if you start thinking about it now, you can approach 2021 with a plan.

Human connections, digital channels

If 2020 was about reworking our human connections, there’s a good chance 2021 will bring a heightened focus on digital. When it comes to collaboration tools, apps and the overall experience of being part of a team without being in the same place, the ad hoc workarounds from the past year will give way to more informed, permanent solutions in the new. With remote work likely here to stay for many people, the ultimate goal is to bring culture to the individual over the phone, tablet, or laptop—to satisfy people’s innate desire to more fully experience the working relationships they’ve worked so hard to build.

Put your passionate people forward

Some of the good news in 2021 is likely to include a renewed emphasis on helping employees feel appreciated. That’s a benefit for them and for the company alike. Consider: Many businesses will emerge from COVID freezes to begin hiring and promoting again. That means the war for talent will emerge from its timeout.

Winning the competition for people often comes down to peer input from people who act as ambassadors for their employers. People won’t act as ambassadors unless the culture and experience they enjoy every day motivates them to. In other words, empowering engaged people today can help you land sought-after people to join their ranks tomorrow. Now is the time to examine that employee experience and consider refining or in some cases creating employee ambassador programs.

Take a fresh look

Everything we set up in a hurry in 2020, we have a chance to refine in 2021. As the pandemic enters a cold-weather resurgence, our approaches to safety can improve based on everything we’ve learned since the initial outbreak. Often that will mean turning to data and analytics capabilities to get a clear picture of how things are going. Look at your childcare policies. Your parental support initiatives. Your flexibility policies. Then think about that popular meme: “How it started/how it’s going.”

So how’s it going? We’ve all heard the aphorism that you can’t manage what you can’t measure. This is a chance for organizations to bring their intelligence and analytics shops, their communications disciplines, and their human performance approaches into the same (virtual!) room, where together they can craft nimble, flexible policies to address the concerns people have today—not the ones they had six months ago. For example, Ketchum’s recent Work Shift study found that employees are putting more emphasis on flexibility and safety than on career advancement.

Not long ago our CEO, Mike Doyle, related to PRWeek something he heard from our London colleague Mark Hume: the way through this is to find “the beauty in the burden.”

No one wished for this year’s chain of events, or ever would have. But we’ve learned new ways to depend on one another, new appreciations of each colleague’s contribution and new workarounds to keep value flowing. When the temporary strictures of the pandemic eventually recede, we should position ourselves to preserve the hatful of good things that arose because of it.

What’s your plan for the first quarter of 2021—otherwise known as Q4 of COVID Year One? And what have you been seeing and hearing in your own work and with your employee base? We’d love to hear about your experiences.

Tamara is partner and managing director for Ketchum’s Employee Communications & Engagement specialty. She collaborates closely with clients to create and deploy corporate reputation campaigns and believes that all strong reputation programs begin inside.


Lauren is an SVP in Ketchum’s Employee Communications & Engagement specialty. She specializes in helping clients build corporate culture and understand employees’ mindsets, identifying the right channels, content, programs and tailored messaging to engage and transform their workforce. Connect with her on Twitter at @lebutler1.