Research: Flexible Work Can Dampen Motivation

 Flexible work is here to stay. A 2019 survey found that 80% of workers would prefer to work for a company that offers flexible work schedules — and the pandemic has only intensified this trend, with employees in every industry embracing the option to work when and where they want to. This has been hugely beneficial for many people, especially for those balancing work with caregiving responsibilities, side hustles, or even just a demanding personal life. However, our recent research suggests that alongside the benefits, there may also be a hidden downside to flexible work.

Through a series of studies with almost 2,000 employees and students in the U.S. and Europe, we found that working at non-standard times such as weekends or holidays significantly reduced people’s intrinsic motivation, making work less motivating and enjoyable. Why would a policy that employees seem to be so excited about end up making them feel worse?

The answer lies in one of the most powerful psychological forces in our lives: social norms. Despite increasing acceptance of non-traditional work schedules, society continues to have clear norms that define when it is — and isn’t — appropriate to work. The 9-to-5 default remains strongly embedded in our culture: Calendar apps gray out weekends and evenings, Google Doodles and other consumer products rebrand for holidays, and many businesses and schools close on weekends, evenings, and holidays.

To be sure, going against a norm can sometimes feel empowering. But it can also sap our motivation. In one of our experiments, we asked employees how they felt about their work first when working on a regular day, and then one week later, when they were working on a federal holiday. We found that motivation and enjoyment were significantly lower when employees were working on a holiday, even though both days were Mondays and employees engaged in similar work-related activities.

The good news is, our research also identified a strategy that can help employees and students stay motivated when working outside of “regular” work hours: We found that by intentionally shifting their mindsets, people were able to preserve motivation while still reaping the benefits of a flexible schedule.

In an initial experiment testing this idea, we had full-time employees imagine working on the weekend. We told one group to think about how their time could have been better spent pursuing non-work activities, like relaxing with friends or listening to music, while we told a second group to think about how they were making good use of their time by catching up on work. A control group was simply instructed to reflect on how they would feel when working during this time, without an explicit mindset prompt.

While these differences may seem subtle, they had a major impact. Focusing on the benefits of working on the weekend helped the employees in the second group to normalize working during this non-standard work time, and as a result, this group reported that they would be on average 23% more interested and engaged with their work than the other two groups. Interestingly, the control group imagined they would be just as demotivated as the first group, even though we didn’t push them to focus on the downsides of working on the weekend. This suggests that people’s natural tendency when working during non-standard work times is to think about how their time could have been better spent pursuing non-work activities, highlighting the power of our mindset-shifting intervention.

In another experiment, we tested this intervention in a real-world setting, with students working in a campus library during Spring Break. We helped one group of students reframe this time as standard work hours by prompting them to think about how people often use Spring Break to get ahead or advance with their work, while prompting another group to maintain the default social norm by thinking about how people usually use this time to have fun, relax, and unwind. We then asked the students how they felt about their work and found that those in the first group were 15% more intrinsically motivated to complete their work.

Importantly, while these experiments allowed us to intentionally prompt people to shift their mindsets, our daily lives are full of subtle reminders of time-use norms that can have a substantial impact on how we feel about our work. For example, you may be planning to use a long flight to get some work done, but when you sit down and see a screen full of in-flight entertainment options, it can dampen your motivation to work. Similarly, you might have been excited to take Fridays off and work on Sundays instead…but when you open your calendar and are reminded that you’re working on a weekend, it can be highly demotivating, leading you to experience your work as less engaging and fun than if you had worked on Friday. Noticing these cues and proactively replacing them with prompts that help you shift how you think about non-standard work times can help you stay motivated when working on a non-traditional schedule.

Flexibility is a boon to the modern workplace — but it shouldn’t have to come at the cost of intrinsic motivation. When employees find their work motivating and enjoyable, they work harderperform better, are more creative, and are more helpful and altruistic. They also report improved work-life balance and overall well-being.

To enjoy the benefits of flexible work without sacrificing your ability to stay motivated, try to find ways to proactively shift your mindset (whether that’s customizing your calendar display, installing an app to notify you when it’s work time, or simply reminding yourself to focus on the benefits of flexibility). With the right state of mind, it’s possible to have the schedule you want and love your job too.

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