We will remember 2021 as the year that the pandemic did not end — but we learned how to live and work despite the ongoing challenges.

When vaccines started being distributed around the world, it appeared that good times were ahead. But in many countries, 2021 was far worse for COVID-19 than the previous year. It was a year marked by delayed office openings, school closings, supply chain issues, inflation pressure, new government mandates and health system strain, as well as the loss of loved ones.

At the same time, the economy saw record-high quit rates as employees left their jobs, especially in the retail, food service and hospitality industries. This “Great Resignation” led many to reconsider the nature of modern work and the changing expectations of today’s employees.

But, like with all things that put humans (and the structures they’ve built) to the test, there’s something bigger to learn. Perhaps the workplace takeaway from last year is this: Employees have found their collective voice — and they are asking for more from those who lead them. Leaders and managers globally have a new chance to meet those demands, engage their employees and make the world a better place to work.

Here are seven workplace insights Gallup uncovered over the past year:

1. The ‘Great Resignation’ can be stopped with a great manager.

In the summer of 2021, Gallup reported that 48% of U.S. employees were actively job searching or watching for job opportunities. Dubbed the “Great Resignation,” this era of unusually high quit rates left many leaders scrambling to fill crucial roles and rethink their employer brand.

And yet Gallup has found that it’s disengaged workers who are at the highest risk of leaving. It takes more than a 20% pay raise to lure most employees away from a manager who engages them, and next to nothing to poach most disengaged workers. High-quality managers who inspire and support their teams are an effective moat of protection for retaining their most talented workers.

2. During the pandemic, remote workers experienced higher engagement — but also higher stress and worry — than on-site workers.

Gallup researchers refer to this finding as the “Wellbeing-Engagement Paradox.” Typically, engagement and wellbeing move together. More engaged employees have higher wellbeing; high wellbeing supports engagement at work. But one of the curious findings of the COVID-19 pandemic was that remote workers were both highly engaged and highly stressed. Many workers were juggling full-time jobs alongside remote-learning kids or suffering from extreme isolation.

Key takeaway: Managers need to watch for signs of burnout, even among high-performing, highly productive remote employees. Remote workers perform best when they have frequent check-ins with their managers.

3. Millennials and Gen Z want employers who care about their wellbeing.

Gen Z and millennials now make up nearly half of the full-time workforce in the U.S. But their careers were also more adversely affected by COVID-19 than older generations’ were in 2020, based on our most recent State of the Global Workplace report.

The unfortunate irony is that younger generations are more likely to rank wellbeing as the most important thing they are looking for in an employer. Every organization that needs young leaders — which includes every organization — should consider how to make wellbeing an essential part of their employee experience.

4. A four day work week can increase wellbeing — but also disengage workers.

In the past year, several countries and organizations have reported on or announced new programs to limit the length of the traditional work week. Gallup’s U.S. panel data from 2020 show that employees who work four days per week have higher wellbeing than those who work five or six days.

However, Gallup’s data also show that the percentage who are actively disengaged rises among those who work fewer days. This means that employees who already feel disconnected from their employer are likely to drift even farther away. In short, reducing the work week doesn’t make work itself better. Improving your organization’s employee experience is likely a better use of energy: Gallup has found that, when it comes to overall wellbeing, the quality of the work experience has 2.5 to three times the impact of number of days or hours worked.

5. Burnout-proof employees have high engagement, and high wellbeing, within a strengths-based culture.

In June 2021, 74% of employees said they experienced burnout on the job at least sometimes. For many employees, this may seem like an inevitability. But Gallup has discovered that there are people whose likelihood of experiencing burnout is essentially zero. These employees share three things in common: They are engaged at work, they have high wellbeing, and their organization has a strengths-based culture.

The stakes for addressing burnout are high. Employees who say they are burned out very often or always are 23% more likely to visit the emergency room. The good news is that employers and managers have a lot of options at their disposal — including improving engagement, encouraging wellbeing and focusing on employee strengths.

6. Gallup anticipates 37% fewer in-office days for employees in 2022.

There are 125 million full-time jobs in America, and about 50% of them can be done remotely. Of those who can work off-site, 30% want to be fully remote while 60% want to be remote some of the time. Gallup estimates a 37% reduction of in-person days worked per week for those who can be remote.

What’s driving this trend? Employees say that remote work eliminates their commute, improves their overall wellbeing, and offers flexibility for family needs and other obligations. That’s a powerful motivator, and it will be unlikely to go away.

7. The office now requires a workplace value proposition.

Before the pandemic, working from the office was the default expectation for employers and employees. But now that many people have been working remotely (and successfully) for almost two years, the in-office requirement is no longer a given. Employees are exploring more flexible ways of working than ever before, while many employers are nervous about empty office buildings.

But this is also a great opportunity for leaders to reimagine and redefine their offices as high-impact experiences. A workplace value proposition gives people a compelling reason to return to the office. Learn more about how to define your organization’s workplace value proposition.


About the Authors:

Ryan Pendell is a Workplace Science Writer at Gallup.