Employee Engagement Barriers During Covid-19

Megan Thompson · May 7, 2021

Employee engagement barriers should be concerning for all employers. Anything that hinders your people from doing their job effectively will have ultimately have negative consequences. During Covid, we’ve seen many new issues arise that HR, line managers and MDs have had to combat.

employee engagement barriers

This guide will explain what employee engagement is, how Covid-19 has created employee engagement barriers, how to identify these barriers and address them.

Quick links

What is employee engagement?

Employee engagement barriers during Covid-19

Identifying employee engagement barriers

How to address your people’s employee engagement barriers


What is employee engagement?

Employee engagement has no fixed definition, but is frequently described as the mental and emotional connection employees feel toward their place of work.

An engaged employee cares about their work, their colleagues and their company. They are motivated to contribute towards the success of the organisation, rather than just seeing work as a necessary evil.

To encourage engagement, the employer should have the interests of the staff at heart. This means they care about their wellbeing and ensure employees feel fully involved in the business.

“The only way to do great work is to love what you do.” – Steve Jobs

Employee engagement barriers during Covid-19

The pandemic has presented numerous challenges for employees throughout the past year. Whilst productivity has not seen a significant decline since a huge proportion of the UK working population switched to remote working, employee wellbeing and mental health has slipped significantly.

Remote working set-up

“Employers are responsible for the health and safety of homeworkers, as far as is reasonably practicable.” – The Management of Health and Safety Regulations 1999

Have you done a risk assessment of your employees’ home office? If not, you could have an issue on your hands. Employers are still legally required to provide a safe workplace even whilst working remotely.

Employees across the UK are experiencing a unique set of circumstances. Some of your team will be working from a home office with a comfortable desk, adequate lighting and heating which they can leave at the end of the day. Others will be working from a bedroom in a flat-share with poor ventilation on an uncomfortable chair. Simply put: if their set-up wouldn’t meet the standards of the office, then you need to find a solution.

An inadequate remote working set up is a significant employee engagement barrier. When employees can’t work comfortably this can cause a decline in wellbeing, productivity and motivation.

social isolation employee engagement barrierSocial isolation

The effects of social isolation during Covid-19 have been far reaching. 30.9% of adults in the UK reported that their wellbeing was affected by feelings of loneliness in 2020. Poor wellbeing and mental ill health is detrimental and can significantly affect our ability to function successfully both inside and outside of work.

This has become a critical employee engagement barrier during Covid-19 for organisations who don’t get the balance right for social interactions. While some employees have appreciated spending more time at home with their families, those living alone may not have seen their families or friends in months. Therefore, you may have people in your organisation who have relied on work as the only time for meaningful, social interactions since the beginning of the pandemic.

A sense of belonging and connection is a really powerful driver for employees. Companies who have failed to replicate the social element of the workplace are doing a disservice to their people and their company culture by unknowingly creating employee engagement barriers in the form of increased isolation.

As humans, we need to feel we’re getting enough positive attention from the people around us and that we are part of a functioning team. Employees need to receive recognition for their contributions and feel valued in order to connect to your organisation – even if they aren’t physically present. Without this, your organisation will face a long-term employee engagement barrier that may not recover when you return to the office.

Return to work for furloughed workers

Employees who have been furloughed may be facing a greater disconnect from your organisation. Four out of 10 employers are currently using the furlough scheme, and reintegration into the workplace will likely be strange.

Furloughed employees, suddenly cut off from normal working life, have had to adjust. Some have welcomed the time off work, while others have struggled. Returning to work will be a different experience for everyone. Employers need to understand this and prepare for employee engagement barriers facing furloughed staff.

Our blog explores some of the ways you can support returning workers’ transition from furlough.

Increased stress or anxiety

The last year has seen an increase in pandemic related stress, according to research by the ONS. Optimistic hopes for a return to normality have returned, with the announcement of the government’s roadmap for the coming months. However, UK mental health charities and experts have advised that the lifting of lockdown restrictions could trigger anxiety and heightened levels of stress for many people who have become accustomed to social distancing, working remotely and the safety net of their own home.

A lot of people with existing anxiety disorders have felt more comfortable at home, where they are able to exert more control over their day-to-day activities, according to Dr Emilios Lemonatis, of the Tavistock and Portman NHS trust.

While people with existing mental health concerns are particularly at-risk, experts say that the uncertainty and disruption caused by a significant shift such as the end of lockdown could still negatively affect people with no prior history of mental health issues. The sudden change from infrequent physical and social contact with others to a 5 day office-based working week will be a challenge for nearly all employees.

If the return to “normal” is not handled well, organisations will experience another employee engagement barrier that persists beyond the end of lockdown and can cause an increase in cortisol and adrenaline levels. Continuing stress and anxiety, bubbling away under the surface, erodes mental capacity, causes erratic behaviour and reduces our effectiveness at work.stress and anxiety at work

Stress can have a huge impact on your people, and a third of organisations include mental ill health among their top three causes of short-term absence. Not only is it a moral obligation for employers to help their employees manage work-related stress, but it is a legal obligation, too. Employers are just as responsible for supporting their remote employees’ mental health as their in-office employees. HSE recommends that every organisation carries out a stress risk assessment to evaluate things like quality of relationships at work, understanding of one’s role, poor communications and the impact of change.

Addressing this early will ensure your people feel informed and certain about the future of work. A phased, hybrid approach for returning employees will alleviate some of this increased stress and anxiety.

Identifying employee engagement barriers

In a post-Covid world we’ve seen a clear shift in the employee experience. Employees are no longer participating in a common, shared work experience. Teams have been widely dispersed for a year and employees simply don’t face identical employee engagement barriers.

While it previously made sense to look at team challenges as a whole to identify specific causes of disengagement, Covid-19 has made it more important than ever to evaluate the individual employee experience.

For example, Mark and Abby both work in the same sales team. Mark lives in a family home with his own office space and a garden where he can unwind. Abby lives in a flat-share on a busy high-street and works from her bedroom. It’s likely that headspace will be more of a challenge for Abby than it will for Mark. Therefore, it’s important to avoid looking at your team’s engagement as a whole.

Creating an environment in which individuals are listened to is key to identifying employee engagement barriers. One of the easiest, and most reliable ways to do this is using an employee engagement survey.

WeThrive’s free engagement and wellbeing survival kit identifies the issues that are affecting your people. With the option for non-anonymous results you can segment your data on an individual level to understand specifically what employee engagement barriers your people are facing.

When you’ve got back your survey results, WeThrive’s dashboard gives you comprehensive, clear actions to make improvements and remove everyone’s employee engagement barriers.

How to reduce your people’s employee engagement barriers

After identifying the underlying needs that have contributed to your peoples’ employee engagement barriers you must commit to meeting these needs. These needs include feeling safe, receiving recognition, knowing what management expectations are, and finding work meaningful.

Good internal communication

employee engagement barriersMany organisations quickly introduced new communication channels, collaboration software and project management tools, such as Slack, Trello and Google Chat. These are good solutions for keeping in touch virtually but a lack of face-to-face conversations has resulted in a scattering of information and dilution of official communication channels.

Communications audit

Start with an audit to understand how much information is going to each employee and how much communication is coming back too. Remember, it’s a two way street between you and your teams, which leads us onto the next point.

Two-way communication

There is a tendency with organisations to do a lot of broadcasting of information to a virtual team. But this means that employees are working with information in your head – how this gets interpreted by people is dependent on what’s in their head. The problem is we all interpret things very differently.

When you’re in a physical group, it’s easy to see when someone has not understood information, simply by the quizzical or blank look on their face. With remote teams, it’s vital to ask them what they understand of the information being shared and what they’ll do next to accomplish the task or goal in hand.

New rules of engagement

Establish communication rules that ensure information is shared in a regular and predictable way, with no-one feeling left out. Good communication doesn’t necessarily mean a daily virtual group huddle, but for some it might.

Building trust within a virtual office

Trust is vulnerable when people are wondering if they’ll come back to work or if they’re job is stable, so how can you help your team to trust you and feel safe?

Set work expectations carefully and as comprehensively as possible and above all, be honest. If something uncomfortable is coming, such as a change in team direction or working practices, tell people as soon as possible and don’t sugar coat it.

Individual experience

Listen to individual voices that can often get lost in the fog of trying to maintain organisational practices, especially in a suddenly different and unfamiliar world that we’re now in.

What to watch out for when you can’t see your staff

To truly excel in remote team management, you need to understand how your remote workers are feeling. It helps to imagine what it feels like in the wilderness, in the dark, as without face to face contact, remote workers are essentially working in the dark.

Use an employee experience platform

Quickly tackle employee engagement barriers with WeThrive. Our unique platform empowers your employees to identify and remove barriers to engagement, wellbeing, productivity and happiness.

With their personal WeThrive Bubble, your people can take ownership of their individual employee experience by running a self-assessment survey whenever they want to determine the areas they need support or improvement. They’ll get instant feedback with coaching actions to begin tackling employee engagement barriers immediately.

Managers can see a full overview of their team and focus on the big picture employee engagement barriers. They can set goals with their personal manager dashboard to remain accountable for their team.

Don’t forget your managers might be facing employee engagement barriers of their own. With WeThrive they also have access to their own Bubble to keep an eye on any challenges they may be facing. Our manager-focused eLearning course will help guide them through this, and turn your managers into leaders.

dismantling employee engagement barriersBut how can C-suite executives, HR and the board of directors benefit from this? While they may not face employee engagement barriers of their own, employee Bubble results are fed up to a top-level overview where they can keep a pulse on the company’s health. Our corporate health check gives a full overview of the organisation and enables you to track post-survey activities to see where progress is being made and where your people are still vulnerable.