Financial services enjoys employee engagement gains in 2021

  • By Zilla Efrat

Financial services organisations made clear, measurable employee engagement gains during 2021, possibly because staff enjoyed having more freedom around where they worked, says Jo-Anne Ruhl, vice president and managing director, Workday Australia and New Zealand.

Of the 17 industries analysed in Workday's 2022 State of Engagement Report, financial services' engagement ranking jumped from ninth to fifth place.

Ruhl says this is particularly noteworthy given the enduring pandemic-related and economic turbulence of 2021 and the fact that global engagement scores slightly declined during that time.

The report analysed nearly nine million employee responses from almost 2.5 million employees throughout 2021. It compared the engagement scores given by employees working in different industries over the 12 months, as well as scores for the 14 drivers of engagement, such as autonomy, goal setting, meaningful work, reward, and recognition.

Historically, financial service organisations have been less quick to evolve than others, but in 2021, the financial services industry saw increased rankings and scores in all but one of the 14 engagement drivers that the State of Engagement report measures.

Of all 17 industries analysed, financial services took top place for goal setting by the end of 2021 (up from sixth place at the start of the year) and landed among the top three sectors for strategy and recognition.

“These strong results indicate the industry provided clear direction to its people at both individual and organisational levels and appropriately recognised employees when they met their goals,” says Ruhl.

“The improvement in the industry's overall engagement, however, was primarily driven by a sizable increase in its environment driver score in 2021, suggesting that a significant number of employees responded positively to having more freedom around where they worked during that second year of the pandemic.

“Before the pandemic, it was unusual for organisations in the financial services industry to offer flexible options at all.

“But in 2021, more than ever before, many of its employees were working remotely or enjoying a hybrid of both remote and in-office work – as and when offices started to re-open.

“This unprecedented choice in where, how, and when they worked was appreciated, as the report indicates, by many workers in the sector.”

“Ruhl says many employees feel the amount of work they have is increasingly unmanageable. Workload continues to be a pain point across all industries globally, with workload satisfaction scores dipping slightly in 2021. At the end of the year, financial services received its lowest engagement-driver score for workload and ranked 11th among the 17 industries analysed.”

Ruhl says this indicates employees in the financial services industry found their workload less manageable as the year progressed, which is perhaps unsurprising considering the pandemic's ongoing toll in many parts of the world, and the fact that remote working can lead to “always-on” work lives.

To help mitigate burnout risk and diminished engagement going forward, Ruhl says financial services leaders and managers will need to stay close to their employees in the months ahead to find out how they can best support them, whether that's with additional resources, greater work flexibility, or updated benefits.

“By regularly staying abreast of people's needs and taking the necessary action, organisations can spot potential problems before they lead to resignations,” she says.

 In recent months, Ruhl has seen some financial institutions try to take a "return to normal" approach, requesting their people return to working on-site five days a week. But, as the report shows, this approach may not be the best for everyone, particularly as the past two years have revealed that many employees appreciate and benefit from greater flexibility.

“Of course, not all organisations will be able to provide hybrid or remote arrangements for all their people. But greater flexibility doesn't necessarily have to mean working remotely,” she says.

“It could mean more flexible scheduling options or a shift in working hours to enable a greater work-life balance.

“Either way, to retain the engagement gains achieved in 2021, the financial services industry should resist the temptation to look back and must instead take learnings from the past two years.

“Amid so much economic and societal change, and with employees continuing to shift jobs in record numbers, companies cannot simply go back to before but must continue moving forward, listening to the needs of their people, and leading with empathy.”

Specifically, Ruhl says leaders and managers in financial services will need to stay closer than ever to employee feedback, going beyond listening and working fast to implement change accordingly.

For the industry to continue making positive gains in employee engagement, it will need to consider how to retain a degree of flexibility by updating models to reflect evolving employee needs.  

It should also ensure it provides clear individual and organisational direction to those working remotely and on-site.

In addition, Ruhl believes the industry should create and maintain more manageable workloads through prioritisation and automating repetitive tasks and continue to reward and recognise employees for their hard work and achievements.

“While great strides were made last year, it's more important now than ever that leaders in the financial services industry determine and understand how employees feel so that organisations can explore and shape a future of work that works for everyone.”