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OFF HOURS

Working flexible hours can make you feel less motivated

A man uses a laptop in Rome,
Reuters/Max Rossi
Chin up.
  • Lila MacLellan
By Lila MacLellan

Quartz at Work senior reporter

Published Last updated

My apartment in New York backs onto a park—a rarity and a mixed blessing.

On weekdays, my home office is quiet, save for the sounds of sparrows. On weekends, the joyful sounds of children’s birthday parties float through my window. Sometimes I’ll catch strains from local musicians jamming at a bluegrass meetup. And there’s a constant stream of chatter and laughter as people pass my window.

Yes these sounds are delightful—except on those weekends when I’ve carved out time to work, making up for time I took off during normal working hours earlier in the week. On those days, the joy outside feels punishing.

Turns out my grumpy reaction is very normal, according to a recent study by Kaitlin Woolley, associate professor of marketing at Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management, and Laura Giurge, a research associate of organizational behavior at London Business School.

In a series of experiments involving more than 2,000 workers and students, they found that toiling outside of regular 9-to-5 hours “undermines people’s intrinsic motivation for their professional and academic pursuits.”

That spells trouble for companies, considering that (a) people do their best work and are happier when they’re fueled by an inner drive, and (b) surveys show that employees, especially working parents, want to work for companies that allow as much flexibility as possible.

Social cues about when to work are hard to ignore

Back in 2018, when the researchers started looking into the effects of flexible work hours, they developed two competing hypotheses, Woolley explains. Perhaps people would feel less engaged when having to work on a weekend or holiday, they thought. But it seemed equally possible, they reasoned, that people with flexible work hours would feel more motivated to work during non-standard hours. “You see yourself working a Saturday or one evening and you’re like, ‘Well, I must really care about my work because I’m doing it during this time when people don’t typically work,” says Woolley.

The first theory won out—and it wasn’t even close. The researchers soon discovered that a few strong forces were shaping people’s experiences during those off-hour work stints.

For one thing, as the authors explained in an article for the Harvard Business Review, people are creatures of habit. Long-standing conventions about when we should or shouldn’t be working are not easily cast aside. “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,” they wrote.

Secondly, people tend to develop regret. One way we do that is by hanging on to what academics call counterfactuals, or torturing ourselves with “what if” questions. “If I weren’t working today, where would I be right now?” “What if I hadn’t chosen to push off my work until the weekend?”

What’s more, working nonstandard hours often means that you’re working alone, and research from the University of Chicago has shown that people are more intrinsically motivated to work when they have the sense that other people are working too, even if those people are not in the same room.

Taken together, these quirks of human nature make it clear why, despite clamoring for flexible hours to make the work-life balance easier to handle, in practice, employees might feel “meh” about working on evenings and weekends.

How can we make non-standard work hours more tolerable?

The researchers surveyed participants to determine how people felt about working on the Monday of a long weekend versus a normal Monday, to see how motivated people felt working a holiday versus a regular day, and to figure out what was generally on people’s mind while working holidays.

On holidays, it turned out that people were “almost automatically,” thinking about all the places they could be instead, says Woolley, which helped researchers see the connection to the psychology of regret.

Next, they asked three groups of study participants to imagine they had to work on a coming weekend. The first group was asked to think about all the things they might rather be doing with their time. The second was told to remind themselves of the upsides to working flexible hours. For example, it’s usually quiet, so you’ll have fewer interruptions, Woolley explains. You won’t have emails arriving constantly or meetings to attend. A third group was not given any instructions about how to frame their imaginary weekend shift.

At the end of the exercise, group two seemed 23% more likely to be interested in work compared with the other two groups.

The same trick worked in a third experiment involving students who were using the spring break to study and might otherwise feel some FOMO.

This mindset fix might sound simple and obvious, but people don’t naturally do it, says Woolley. It’s far more likely for people to dream up counterfactuals, propelled by the laughter outside their window, or pictures on social media. It also doesn’t help that schools are closed on weekends, and calendar apps and Google Doodles remind people when it’s a holiday, even if they’d rather forget.

Protect time off to be with friends and family

As more companies move toward a more asynchronous way of operating, Woolley has some additional advice.

Studies have shown that people are happiest when they can share time off with people they’re closest to, she says, so someone who works a standard 40-hour work week and spends weekends with friends and family might be happier than someone who works just 20 hours a week but only on evenings and weekends. That’s worth keeping in mind as you set your work hours.

There’s also a lesson for managers in this study. Because people feel more motivated and connected to the organization when they are working with other people, it may be useful to establish weekend shifts with a few employees “on” together.

For the same reasons, companies that are considering adopting four-day workweeks and other extremely flexible schedules might want to assign everyone the same day off, too, if that’s a reasonable option. It may come as a surprise, says Woolley, but sometimes it’s better to have more constraints, not fewer.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

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