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2020 Changed the employee experience forever – These trends will matter in 2021

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With two weeks left in what has easily been the strangest and most unprecedented year in business history, everyone has been forced to adapt to a new way of doing things. The learning curve brought on by 2020 was both steep and unpredictable — and the imprint it’s left on the employee experience will have an irreversible effect on the workplace for years to come.

Since March, almost everything we’ve experienced has been uncharted territory. The COVID-19 pandemic brought new realities and demands, many of which we are still getting used to. We’ve seen the world go virtual overnight, the economy shutter, and employees battle through unprecedented challenges of mental health, resiliency, and a new definition of the workplace.

In 2020 employee engagement actually increased

But even in the face of uncertainty and hardship, what we do know is this: The silver lining from this year has been the things that we’ve learned. Organizations have navigated new challenges and transformed the way they run. Leaders saw an opportunity to listen more to their people and improved their communication. Employees have been tested in ways they’ve never faced and found new ways to engage.

As we move ahead, businesses will need to understand the trends that emerged in 2020 — and the impact those trends will have in reshaping the workforce in 2021. At Qualtrics, we gathered feedback from more than 11,800 full-time employees across 20 different countries to get to the heart of what’s changed for the workforce over the past year and the actions HR leaders can take to build on those changes moving forward.

Here’s what we found out. (Full report here)

2020 Surprise: Employee engagement and retention are up

Despite unprecedented disruption and changes to the physical workplace, a majority of companies are surprised to find that employee engagement actually increased +13% in 2020 — from 53% in our report last November to 66% a year later.

66% of individual contributors said they planned to stay with their current organization

In a crisis that’s lasted far longer than originally anticipated, a majority of organizations have seen engagement and retention go up — sparked by leadership support, trustworthy communication, and a pivotal shift to employee listening.

During 2020, employees’ intent to stay three years or more in their current company went up by 17 points. And while the numbers vary by role — with 83% expressing an intent to stay at the executive level — 66% of individual contributors maintained that they would stay with their current organization.

In 2020, employees are driven by 'belonging’ and ‘company purpose’

For years, employees have been consistent about the issues that engage them at work. But 2020 has completely upended any sense of consistency. In a year that’s undergone a devastating pandemic, a historic push for social justice, and widespread economic disruption, employees are deeply invested in what their organizations are doing to make a difference in the world. And that response has become massively important in influencing employee engagement.

Employees who feel like they belong are 3.5x more likely to be engaged at work

Top engagement drivers have statistically shifted more this year than in the past several years combined. In particular, we’ve seen two new key drivers emerge – a sense of belonging and a sense of pride in the company’s efforts to have a positive impact on the world.

In looking at employee engagement scores for those who feel like they belong as opposed to those who don't, the numbers are overwhelming: employees who feel like they belong are 3.5x more likely to be engaged at work than those who feel like they don’t.

Taking action on feedback is critical — and how organizations will thrive in 2021

This year has seen a dramatic shift in terms of how and when organizations listen to their employees. In the early stages of the pandemic — halfway through Q2 2020 — just 51% of employees felt that their company was listening to them. That number stands at 69% as of November 2020, with COVID-19 driving countless organizations to quickly pulse employees on their well-being and sentiment around work-safety issues.

Listening without taking action actually results in worse engagement than if you don’t have a listening program at all

But while measurement steadily improved over the course of the year, the number of organizations taking consistent action based on feedback has remained low. While 92% of respondents stated that employee feedback is important, only 7% say their organizations take action on feedback well.

Here’s why that matters: Companies’ execution based on employee feedback has a direct, positive effect on the employee experience. As more employees grow satisfied with the action their organizations take based on feedback, the higher employee retention and engagement goes. Our data shows that listening without taking action actually results in worse engagement than if you don’t have a listening program at all.

Every organization and industry is different, but after a year filled with the unexpected, the one constant is this: the employee experience has changed forever. Organizations are charged with relentlessly pursuing a better experience for their workforce — and the ones that prioritize belonging, resilience, and well-being are the ones positioned to thrive in the year ahead.

Read the complete findings from our survey of more than 11,800 full-time employees

Jay Choi // EVP and GM, Employee Experience Business

Jay Choi joined Qualtrics in January of 2016 and is currently the Executive Vice President of the Employee Experience business. At Qualtrics Jay has led several key initiatives including category creation, pricing / packaging, and GTM strategy. Today, Jay is specifically responsible for defining Qualtrics artificial intelligence and automation strategy. Prior to joining Qualtrics, he served 16 years in executive roles with Deloitte, 3M, and Danaher.

Jay earned his Bachelor’s degree in Computer Engineering from the University of Michigan and his Master of Business Administration in Marketing, Finance and International Business from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

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