New Research Sneak Peek: How the Pandemic Impacted Employee Engagement

Christina Zurek
Christina Zurek

employees interacting with each other in office

For months, we’ve weathered and adjusted (then readjusted) to employee engagement and talent management changes brought on by the pandemic, including:

  1. The way work is done
  2. What employees want from the work they do
  3. Factors that determine whether employees stay or leave an organization

While the pandemic isn’t in our rearview mirror just yet, these changes are likely to affect what employees are looking ahead to long term. This long-term impact is why we decided it was time to gather employee feedback again, similar to our early-pandemic employee sentiment research and our landmark study on the Psychological Benefit Framework

Related: If you’d like to learn more about how ITA Group can leverage the Psychological Benefit Framework to improve engagement at your organization, take a closer look at our diagnostic tool, EngageFx.

In our latest research project, we want to better understand how employee engagement has changed over the course of the pandemic as well as how much the changes matter—or don’t matter—when it comes to retaining talent.

We’ll continue combing through the data in the coming weeks, looking for both confirmation of what we expected to see as well as findings that surprised us. There will be plenty of information on our findings when we’ve fully reviewed the results, but here’s the deal—I’m notoriously terrible at keeping secrets, so I couldn’t resist sharing a few of the insights that stood out. Here’s the top four takeaways (so far!).

The Psychological Needs of Employees Are Being More Effectively Met

The Psychological Benefit Framework, our research-backed philosophy on employee needs, taught us that when those needs are effectively met, employees are three times more likely to be satisfied, engaged advocates for their organization. Despite the challenges of the past year and half, we’re seeing notable positive change within nearly every psychological benefit—which is great!

The positive change in psychological benefit performance means more employees feel their needs are being met more effectively, which should ultimately drive engagement and employee retention. We’re still exploring why this positive improvement occurred, but believe strong leadership, advocacy for employee needs and the elevated presence of HR leadership throughout the pandemic has been a likely driver. The one psychological benefit where we did not see the downward trend we would have hoped for is within negative emotions; though that finding is understandable given the emotional toll the pandemic has had on many.

chart showing percentage of employees saying psychological benefits are being met

Offering Flexibility to Employees Boosts Self-Esteem, Cultural Appeal & Social Connection

Another key finding in our Psychological Benefit Framework research study was how important an employee’s sense of identity is to overall engagement. Sense of identity is deeply connected to the employee’s self-esteem, appeal of the organization’s culture and their desire to form social bonds at work. The new research revealed that offering flexibility for both when and how work gets done provides a significant and highly positive impact on employee identity. Given concerns being discussed among organizational leaders that increased flexibility may negatively impact social bonds, we were especially interested to see the opposite sentiment coming through from surveyed employees.

graph showing importance of flexibilty for employees

Authenticity of Company Mission & Values Increasingly Important

We’re also seeing strong correlations between employee satisfaction and the degree to which employees feel their organization’s mission and values are inspirational. The correlation is even stronger when they believe their company effectively lives up to that mission and values. What’s more, there’s also a strong correlation between mission/values and an employee’s belief that their company genuinely cares about retaining them.

The good news is that organizations are generally doing well on this front: 70% of respondents agreed their company mission and values were inspirational and 76% agreed their company is authentically living up to them.

The “Reality Slump” Is Back (and Worse Than Before)

In our prior study, we identified a concerning trend we coined the “Reality Slump”—a period of time, generally 1–2 years post-hire, when an employee is most likely to turnover. It negatively impacts employee engagement, advocacy and psychological benefit performance levels and is a serious issue in the workforce. And, unfortunately, it’s not only still present, but also more severe.

What’s more, an additional issue has been identified in the psychological benefit performance of employees with 11–19 years of tenure. The segment’s decline was not previously seen in the original research and is likely an output of the pandemic. We’ll explore all possible contributors to the issue in the coming weeks and share more insight into what causes it—and how to help employees overcome it—as we learn more.

2021 Psychological Benefit Performance by tenure

2018 psychological benefit performance by tenure

Related: Want to combat the reality slump? Check out our webcast to learn how to engage and retain top talent.

If you like what you see, stay tuned—we’ll release the full research report in the coming weeks as well as share additional views into the data to help you more effectively engage and retain talent in the months to come.

In the meantime, if you’d like to learn how to support employees' psychological needs and create a culture of trust, transparency and belonging, join me in an upcoming webinar. It’s hosted by our friends at Cooleaf and we'll be discussing our respective research and ideas on this important topic. To learn more and sign up, click here!

Christina Zurek

Christina Zurek

Christina is an experienced leader with a passion for improving the employee experience, employee engagement and workplace culture. Few things excite her as much as an opportunity to try something unfamiliar (be that a project, development opportunity, travel destination, food, drink or otherwise), though digging in to a research project is a close second.