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Op-ed: Workers across U.S. are losing confidence. We need to fix that before it's too late

Becky Cantieri, chief people officer at SurveyMonkey
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Key Points
  • The Q4 2020 CNBC|SurveyMonkey Workforce Happiness Survey revealed that the percentage of workers confident their organization's leadership is making the right business decisions to manage through the current environment had declined.
  • Employees who are positive on career advancement opportunities also saw a slight drop.
  • There are several steps companies can take to reverse these trends, writes Becky Cantieri, chief people officer at SurveyMonkey.
Employees working at their desks with screen partition in between them, back to work after Covid-19 pandemic. Worker confidence has remained high throughout a difficult 2020, but it has slipped a little, according to a CNBC|SurveyMonkey workforce survey, and that should not escape the attention of organizations that want to keep their best people.
Luis Alvarez | DigitalVision | Getty Images

As the head of an organization dedicated to the happiness and well-being of employees, I hear a lot of invaluable feedback about the needs and interests of our people. As we continue wandering through unknown territory with the Covid-19 pandemic, one of the biggest questions of the moment is whether organizational leaders are making the best possible decisions and moving in the right direction.

To better understand perspectives on this and many other timely questions better, SurveyMonkey regularly surveys our employees. Additionally, our research team continues to conduct timely, nationally representative public opinion polls, including with our partners at CNBC. In looking forward to the conclusion of a difficult year, we are particularly interested in what surveys can teach us about the challenges we will face as more of society begins to reopen in 2021.

Our latest CNBC|SurveyMonkey Workforce Happiness Survey revealed that 79% of workers are confident their organization's leadership is making the right business decisions to manage through the current environment, which is a positive reflection of the exceptional effort from HR organizations and leadership in this unusual year. However, this was also a slight drop from May, when confidence was 83%.

While the downward dip is unsettling, it is vital that organizations figure out how to win and keep the confidence of their people.

I recently had a chance to compare notes with colleagues who lead the people organizations at their companies and found that the concerns are very similar. These conversations, paired with the results from the CNBC|SurveyMonkey study, point to several important trends for people organizations to focus on as the calendar turns to the new year:

1. Prioritize career advancement

Employees' desires to learn, grow and produce great work have remained consistent, but people are finding it more difficult to do so while working from home. The number of workers who rated their opportunities for career advancement as either good or excellent dipped slightly from May, decreasing from 62% to 60%.

While that is not a significant drop, as a people leader it's an important metric on my radar. Any decrease in expectation of their path to growth sits alongside reduced confidence in leadership as numbers that may be early warning signals of future disengagement or attrition if they are not reversed. Workplaces are going to be much more transient in the future, even after we overcome the pandemic, so we can't just ride it out and hope a return to the physical workplace solves the problem.

Companies have to think differently in helping people evolve and grow new skills. Some of my colleagues are looking at tools like real-time coaching and intensive quarterly training as formalized ways to overcome the challenges of distance, but we have to do more than simply wait until we are sitting next to each other again. The paradigm has shifted, and companies have to create new ways of investing in the growth and development of their teams.

2. Continue support for working parents, caregivers

As the pandemic began to spread, companies everywhere scrambled to offer support for parents with children and caregivers for older relatives, neighbors and friends. Unsurprisingly, most working parents (61%) say the coronavirus outbreak has made it harder for them to balance their work and family responsibilities.

The availability of schools and support systems are variable right now, complicating virtually every decision for working parents. Companies can help their people by making concrete plans now that provide clarity for working caregivers.

Several colleagues I have spoken with recently are remaining closed through the traditional school year, and won't consider possible opening plans until June or July. Getting ahead of the curve with closures and office requirements multiplies the benefits for organizations: along with removing a major source of stress for their people, these concrete steps help build confidence that leadership understands and cares about employees' challenges.

3. Respond to employee expectations around the vaccine

While a safe, effective vaccine is an essential next step for public health, it's only a small part of the calculus for businesses and organizations as they contemplate reopening. The vaccine won't be a silver bullet for returning to in-person work if an organization has been successfully operating remotely – there is more to consider with fairly, safely and equitably opening.

In addition, the vaccine itself is a polarizing subject, and virtually everyone has a passionate interest. It's essential that people organizations actively seek the opinions of employees and create policies that will help people feel safe without compromising happiness. It may be a difficult needle to thread, but we must begin by understanding what makes people happy and work forward from that point.

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Looking ahead to 2021

The massive, overnight shift to remote work in 2020 was difficult for a lot of companies, but the many-layered challenges of reopening in 2021 will push people organizations even further.

Companies have an opportunity to have a positive long-term impact on workplace happiness and build confidence in organizational leadership. Understanding how your organization will manage policies and practices, and communicating this in a clear, simple way to employees will remind people about your commitment to advancing their careers, well-being and safety.

By Becky Cantieri, chief people officer at SurveyMonkey