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THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN FLEXIBLE WORK ARRANGEMENTS AND MOTIVATION:

A central facet of the planning endeavor is for human resource specialists to establish a workforce that is motivated to work in a high-quality way. There are many strategies that human resource practitioners can utilize to motivate their workforce.  One approach is flexible work arrangements. Alternative work schemes are provisions offered by the employer to enable the employee to work outside the standard workday (McNall, Masuda and Nicklin, 2010). These arrangements allow the employee to choose where and when to work and how much work to perform (Azar, Khan, and Van Eerde, p 134, 2018). This study considers to what extent flexible work arrangements affect motivation levels. A primary question to address is does an employees’ control in their work schedule – perceived or real – has a significant effect on motivation levels?

Flexible work arrangements are alternate work schedules from the traditional working day and week. Flexible work arrangements make employees choose where and when to work and how much work to perform (Azar, Khan, and Van Eerde, p 134, 2018).  Authors McNall et al. (2010) define alternative work arrangements as employer-provided benefits that permit employees some control over when and where they work outside of the standard workday. Alternative work is typical among older workers and more highly educated workers, and the workforce has become older and more educated over time (Katz and Kruger, 2019, p 407). Flexible work design helps employees to enjoy actualizing their needs in terms of family, leisure, work, and friends. When you have flexibility in work arrangements, the employer shows care and concern for a variety of needs of the employee.  Therefore, while work needs remain paramount, so are the needs of the worker relating to family, leisure, and social (friends) needs.

There are a variety of flexible work arrangements. These arrangements can vary according to three primary categories:  1) Autonomy given to the employee, 2) Scheduling Elasticity, and 3) Hour Variances.  The following chart displays a variety of flexible work arrangement types within these categories. 

Chart constructed by J. Eisbrenner (May 2020)

Theories and current studies, ideas

Many studies highlight that a non-motivated workforce produces sub-par work performance.  Authors Kinicki, Fugate, and Digby (2016) emphasize that motivation represents psychological processes that cause the arousal, direction, and persistence of voluntary actions that are goal-directed (p 113). If one considers their notion, then one can hypothesize that if human resource practitioners do not enact psychological processes, the worker will not strive to achieve work goals. Sub-par worker performance is significant because it jeopardizes a company’s productivity level. As authors Dressler, Chinzer, and Cole (2014) explain, employee engagement with the company has tangible significance (p 323). 

By these and other findings, one can see that human resource management needs to pay close attention to developing methods to motivate its workforce. Research up until the 1980s focused on motivation via financial incentives; these incentives equated to financial rewards paid to workers whose production exceeded some predetermined standard (Dressler, et al., 2014, p 323). Frederick Taylor popularized this notion and suggested that management should be given greater control over labor processes in the workforce by exchanging effort for a reward; the premise was for employees to increase efficiency, they need to work most productively (Senyucal, 2001, p 26). However, the theory is limited in that it treats employees as objects to exploit.

The Hawthorn studies took a new approach and examined alternate ways to increase worker performance and organizational production. A main offshoot of the Hawthorne experiments is the finding that giving worker’s attention is a motivator (Schwind, Uggerslev, Wagar, and Fassina, 2019, p 44). The Hawthorne experiments led to the formation of the Human Relations approach to the study of organizations. The notion of worker attention as a motivator aligns with the value of alternative work arrangements.  For example, if a worker perceives that the employer is paying attention to his or her needs, they are more apt to be motivated to perform well. A Canadian government survey (2016) indicates many employees are appreciative of employers who pay attention to their needs through various alternative work arrangements. Examples include those with intensive caregiving responsibilities, older workers transitioning out of the workplace, employees returning to work after a career break, or employees with a health problem or disability (p 16).  

A prominent theory that emerged following the Hawthorne experiments is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which is a theory based on five need levels. An individual must meet the lowest level of need before the next level emerges; when the next level appears, the individual moves to the next highest level and so on (Kinicki, Fugate, and Digby 2016, p 135). The theory is significant regarding motivation. For instance, if management wants an employee to attain self-esteem and then move to the highest need for self-actualization, this outcome is achievable only if the employer arranges the work environment in a way that allows the worker to reach each need level, accordingly. Subsequently, if management constructs a dissatisfying work arrangement, the employee can never reach the highest need level, according to Maslow’s theory.  

Another theory relevant in the context of flexible work arrangements and motivation is Alderfer’s ERG theory. ERG theory is similar to Maslow’s philosophy as it considers the element of needs. The approach varies because there are only three central needs: Existence, relatedness, and the desire to grow as a human being (Kinicki et al., 2016, p 137).  You can apply the theory to associate alternate work arrangements and motivation. For example, if the worker is dissatisfied with the existing work plan and feels that it stifles his or her ability to grow as a human being, the worker will not be motivated to perform well.  Thus, managers can counteract levels of discontent by offering a work-set up conducive to the worker’s needs.

More recent studies examine the extent to which flexibility in a work arrangement is one primary way to boost motivation.  In essence, flexibility in a work set-up is an inducement, meaning it is a means in which to entice a worker to want to join with and connect to the organization.  A study by Lee, Liu, Roussea, Hui, and Cen (2011) found that when an employee perceives an inducement equates to an employer supporting them personally, he or she is more willing to be obligated and committed to the employer (pp 4-5). Another study to show the correlation between alternate work arrangements and motivation found that offering work flexibility resulted in increased job satisfaction, which, in turn, lowered turnover intentions (Azar, Khan, and Van Eerde, 2018, p 141). Lowered turnover rates are significant because it reduces the training costs for new employees (Schwind et al., 2019).  Research by Petak and Miller (2019) also highlights that flexibility increases motivation levels, which in term heightens both motivation and organizational productivity. Their research points out that flex time's alternative work arrangement increases employees' motivation levels (p 410).   While these and other studies find a correlation between flexible work arrangements and motivation, they do not readily consider whether or not employee autonomy in the type of flexible work arrangements makes a difference in the motivation level.

Recently, ideas are emerging that capsulate the notion that offering freedom in a work schedule results in a workforce enthusiastic to perform at high levels. The concept has arisen because of the complexity and diversity of worker needs in the twenty-first-century workplaces. Robert Semler is one manager who embraces this notion. According to Semler, people need to have a purpose in life, including at work.  Without such resolve, people are non-driven to be enthused at work. Hence, to motivate workers, managers must provide schedules that fulfill the need for workers to have a purpose at work (Semler, 2014).  Peter King, Latin American President at Energetics, is another example of a manager who has changed the way about how to manage people.  His philosophy is to allow employees to contribute to the development and running of the company freely, rather than management telling them how to run things (King, 2014). In the context of flexible work arrangements, this means putting trust in the employee that he or she will work on a job project within a schedule that works for them. Considering King’s idea, it is not about the management controlling the timing. Instead, it is about results from the perspective that employees fulfill the tasks assigned comprehensively.  The application of King’s ideas is that employees who have greater freedom will achieve on-time delivery in very innovative ways (King, 2014).  

How the study will add to past research on autonomy in flexible work set-up and motivation - 

 While these new ideas are highly relevant, there is little existing research with a precise focus to relate the correlation between autonomy in one's work set-up and motivation levels. Much of the research on motivation and alternate work arrangements focus is on the employer's offering of particular types of work arrangements. Indeed, the conclusions of some studies point to a significant correlation between alternative work arrangements and motivation.  For example, as work-life balance ingrains itself into the business world's idiolect and millennials' influence grows, more companies are turning to or expanding existing, flexible time-off policies. A study by B. Croce (2018) shows that employees appreciated the flexibility to attend their child's school function or take a parent to a doctor's appointment (p 1). However, while such findings are significant, the conclusions seem premature. Also, most reviews leave out the factor of employee input and autonomy in the flexible work arrangement. Adding the element of independence may be a meaningful indicator of the extent to which flexible work arrangements foster and heighten worker motivation levels.

My initial hypothesis - 

 The current study helps us understand how integrating the aspect of worker autonomy regarding flexible work arrangements boosts motivation levels. Specifically, the study postulates that participants who are given a higher degree of freedom in determining their type of alternative work arrangements are expected to be more motivated to work at optimal levels than those who were not given autonomy in their work arrangement.

METHOD

  1. Participants

 Participants were from two categories.  The first category pertained to the employees. This category included 40 voluntary participants from three enterprises located in a Western Canadian city. Two companies were in the same industry, while the third company was in an unrelated industry. There were 12 employees from one business and 14 from each of the other two businesses.  There were 20 females and 30 males. All employees tested were full-time employees reporting as working in some form of an alternate work paradigm. Potential participants were excluded if they were managers, supervisors, contract workers, or in a probationary period of employment. The employers in all of the companies were on board with the testing idea of these participants.  

The second category included the supervisors of each of the employees. Some employees had the same supervisors.  For business 1, there were four supervisors. For business 2, there were four supervisors; for business 3, there were five supervisors. The employers in all of the companies were on board with the testing idea of these participants.

  1. Materials 

For Category One, participants were given an on-line questionnaire to fill out with a variety of questions. They were asked a range of questions regarding their satisfaction at work, their ideas about their motivation levels, desire to work enthusiastically and diligently for their employer. The participants were also asked to rank other motivators, which included:  The freedom to set their own work schedule, a system of conflict management in the workplace, avenues in the workplace for social connection with other employees, a satisfactory pay level, and the ability to engage in problem-solving and decision-making with the team unit.

For Category Two, an interview format was used to ask the supervisors to provide their ideas about motivation and work performance levels of each of their employees in the experiment.  

  1. Procedure

 Participants were from two categories.  The first category pertained to the employees. This category included 40 voluntary participants from three enterprises located in a Western Canadian city. Two companies were in the same industry, while the third company was in an unrelated industry. There were 12 employees from one business and 14 from each of the other two businesses.  There were 20 females and 30 males. All employees tested were full-time employees reporting as working in some form of an alternate work paradigm. Potential participants were excluded if they were managers, supervisors, contract workers, or in a probationary period of employment. The employers in all of the companies were on board with the testing idea of these participants.  

The second category included the supervisors of each of the employees. Some employees had the same supervisors.  For business 1, there were four supervisors. For business 2, there were four supervisors; for business 3, there were five supervisors. The employers in all of the companies were on board with the testing idea of these participants.

All participants in category one were given the same set of questions. The first question pertained to indicating the type of flexible work arrangement. The second question asked the participant to indicate whether they had autonomy in determining their alternate work arrangement type. If they answered “yes,” they were asked to report on a scale of 1 to 5, the level to which they had autonomy in deciding their type. The other questions pertained to the participants providing additional information about their particular flexible work paradigm, their thoughts about their level of motivation, satisfaction at work and with their boss, trust in their boss, work performance output, the healthiness of their work-life balance and eagerness to perform at an optimal level.  They were also asked to rank what motivates. They were given a list of five motivators and asked to rate each on a scale of 1 to 5, accordingly (1 being the least motivator and 5 being the highest motivator).

For Category Two, a meeting was set to explain the procedure. At an initial meeting, participants gave informed consent. Each consent form contained an assigned identification number and requested the participant’s job title.  Next, participants were given an instruction sheet. These written instructions, which we also read aloud, explained the experimental conditions, clarified that specific answers for each supervisor were confidential and would not be explicitly shared with the employees or employer.  The initial plan was to interview each participant individually. Because the testing for Category Two took place during the COVID 19 pandemic of business closures, the project switched from an in-person interview format to a telephone interview. The participants answered the questions about the employee’s performance according to circumstances before COVID 19. All participants in category two were given the same set of questions. The questions pertained to the supervisor’s evaluation of the employees’ work performance and motivation levels.

RESULTS

Category One – Employees

The results for employees were rated according to motivation to perform well, trust in the employer, work-life balance, job satisfaction, the perception of their work performance level, and eagerness to perform at an optimal level.  The findings were based on the average mean of the ratings by employees in all three businesses.   The specific results on a scale of 1-5 are as follows: 

Work Factors:

With Autonomy

No Autonomy

Motivation to Perform Well

4.6

3.9

Trust in the Employer

3.1

3

Work-Life Balance

4.5

3.9

Job Satisfaction

4.6

3.9

Perceived Work Performance 

4.9

4.8

Eagerness to Perform at an Optimal Level

4.7

4

     

Work-life balance and trust in the employer were higher for those employees with autonomy to choose the type of alternate work arrangements versus employees assigned a particular flexible work set-up outside of the standard work paradigm. Job satisfaction was in keeping with the hypothesis in that it showed a contrast between the two groups – those with autonomy versus those with no independence. There was no distinct difference in the rating that pertained to trust in the employer.  Both groupings rated trust in their employer at a marginally satisfactory level.  Concerning the perception that workers had about how they performed in their job, both groups yielded the same results; the results show that both groups perceive themselves as performing at optimal levels. Figure 1 delineates the findings:  

Figure 1

When participants were asked to rank other motivators on a scale of 1 to 5, the finding was that the freedom to set their own works schedule was high overall.  However, it was not necessarily the most top motivator for all employees.  For example, the extrinsic motivator of pay was also ranked as the highest motivator for employees in Business 1 and Business 3. For both companies, autonomy in the work schedule was the next most top motivator.  For Business 2, independence in the work schedule was ranked as the highest motivator.  The following Figure 2 displays the results:

Category Two:  The Supervisor

Results of the participants in category two showed that employees who had freedom in choosing and implementing their work arrangement type were more apt to perform at optimal levels compared to those workers who were not given autonomy, according to the rating by their supervisors. The breakdown of the mean score of the ratings on a scale of 1 to 5 by the supervisors of their employees is as follows:  

 

Work Performance With Autonomy

Work Performance with No Autonomy

Business 1

4.1

4

Business 2

4

3.8

Business 3

4

3.5

 

 While the results show a distinct difference for Business 2 and 3, the comparison of autonomy versus no autonomy in Business 1 were not as distinct. Therefore, while the finding supports my hypothesis that autonomy leads to higher performance levels, the inconsistency between businesses reveals that the premise is not fully supported. Figure 3 below graphs the results: 

Figure 3

 When the supervisors were asked about motivation levels of their employees according to workers with autonomy in their alternative work arrangement plan versus no independence, interestingly, the differences were not as sharp as compared to how they rated performance levels.  But, the findings show that ratings of motivation levels taken singularly were high.  The specifics results showed the following:  On a scale of 1 – 5, Business 1 rated autonomy at 4.2 and no freedom at 4. For Business 2, the rating was 4 for independence and 3.9 for no autonomy.  For Business 3, the result was 3.9 for those employees who had the freedom to choose their alternate work arrangement scheme compared to 3.8 for those employees with no autonomy. The following Figure 4 illustrates these results:

Figure 4

Discussion

The purpose of this study was to test how an employees’ control over their work schedules heightens work motivation. I predicted that the more power that a worker has over his or her work arrangement, the more satisfied the worker would be in his or her job and be more motivated to perform well for the employer. In this study, the majority of workers who felt they had control over their work set-up recorded as being more satisfied with their work and boss and more apt to want to perform at an optimal level.  Most workers in this category also stated they performed at higher levels and produced more quality work.  However, when I asked the supervisors to rate quality in work performance, the levels were not as high as to how employees rated themselves. Thus, there is a difference in employee versus supervisor ratings. The supervisor ratings of work performance overall do show that workers with greater autonomy produce at higher levels. When I asked the supervisors about the quality of work of those employees who did not have variance in their work arrangement, they reported that 70% of those workers performed at optimal (excellent) levels, 20% at appropriate levels, and 10% at a low-quality level. Thus, the hypothesis was partially supported because adding autonomy does heighten motivation and performance levels in most categories. However, because the contrast is not significant in some groups, the hypothesis is not entirely supported. This feature relays that the element of providing employees with the freedom to choose the specifics of their alternate work arrangement paradigm does not automatically result in workers being more satisfied and motivated to perform at optimal levels.  

While the findings in this study do not conclusively reveal that freedom in choosing one's alternate work arrangement is the determining factor in motivation and work performance, the study does underscore the importance of alternative work arrangements as a factor in motivation. The findings reveal that a work arrangement with some level of flexibility compared to a standard work set-up plays a vital role in creating a desire in employees to perform well for their employer. This finding is consistent with other research by B. Croce. In his study, Croce (2018) Croce found that many jobs at an investment firm do not require the employees to be in the office full time to produce optimal work performance levels. "They are knowledge workers, they're paid for their thinking, and their thinking can be done anywhere at any time" (p 2).

         The discoveries in this study unearthed that autonomy in an employee's work schedule plays a role in the level of motivation at work and the desire to perform at optimal levels. However, because the supervisors' answers did not entirely match what workers said about their work performance and motivation levels, it is unclear as to the degree to which work performance heightened. I surmise that the difference is because ideas about what constitutes optimal work may not always be the same between employees and supervisors. A study by Montano, Hoven, and Siegrist (2014) provides an example of this circumstance. One of their research findings is that when dealing with intervention processes relating to job stress, work-life balance, and injury prevention, managers appraise the mediation procedures differently compared to the employees.

          In my study, the findings of motivation levels show little difference between the groups of employees with autonomy to determine their work set-up scheme versus employees with no independence. This result moves somewhat away from my hypothesis that autonomy is a significant factor. However, the finding supports the notion that offering an employee the opportunity for an alternative work arrangement compared to the standard work set-up (eight hours per day, five times per week) boosts motivation levels.  

Further, the result of no significant difference in motivation levels in some areas may be due to other circumstances. For example, differences in management styles may affect employees’ behavior. A study by Ying, Faraz, Ahmed, and Raza (2020) showed that businesses with leaders who provided psychological empowerment resulted in heightened voluntary green behavior of employees compared to companies with leaders who did not offer empowerment. In this study, green behavior pertained to employees’ motivation levels to be autonomously good stewards of the environment. Additionally, the study showed that other elements beyond the freedom to choose one’s work schedule are primary motivators. The mean average for other motivators showed that employees ranked pay as a primary motivator; in one business, it was ranked higher than autonomy in the work schedule. However, because the study yielded varying results for all three firms, it is not possible to conclusively determine that money or independence in the work-set up are primary motivators. The result variance shows that there is a mixture of elements that are drivers of an employee’s motivation. 

The significance of this result for Human Resource practitioners is that it is vital to engage with each employee to determine the elements that meet their needs as drivers of their motivation.  In this study, I asked participants to rank five possible motivators; however, because of the distinctive nature of individuals, the motivators presented were not necessarily primary for all of the participants. Instead, there are potentially many other drivers of motivation. For future studies, the researcher could either provide other motivators; alternatively, have a category titled “other.”  Adding this element to future studies is critical. It will consider the varying needs of the participants, mainly if they are in varying jobs and a cross-section of industries. In research by Oliver Brolis (2018), the finding was that pro-social motivators drove some workers, while the ability to fulfill a particular mission -  such as being motivated to provide high-quality care to the patient -  was a driver for other participants (p 2863).

 Research on motivation and flexible work arrangements can continue in many directions. First, motivation may be affected by not only a flexible work arrangement paradigm; but rather types of flexible work arrangements. This study makes a distinction between different alternative work arrangements and job types with motivation levels. This aspect is essential because human resource managers need to consider a variety of parameters when it comes to flexibility and worker motivation. In my study, while the participants are in firms within the same region, the participants' differences in departments and jobs were not considered.  Thus, further studies could expand on this element and draw it in a future experiment.  

 Second a variety of circumstances may be mediating factors. For instance, it would be relevant to study the level to which culture plays a role. Culture refers to the overall atmosphere, perceptions, and attitudes in the workplace. A culture conducive to appreciating the distinctive nature of its staff members accepts the challenge of moving away from standardization deviation, when appropriate and desired. Culture needs to be non-static, meaning it needs to adjust to changing circumstances. One example of adaptability is the adjustment that New York-based Omnicom Company made in the face of COVID-19. Rather than laying off all employees, the company changed from the standard work-week mentality to allowing some of its 70,000 employees to work remotely on their own time and way (Needleman and Haggin, 2020). It would be noteworthy to study the motivation levels of these employees.

 A third direction, and perhaps most riveting, could be for studies to factor in more specifically whether it is the element of autonomy that is the only main factor. What other factors may play a role? For example, it would be noteworthy to examine whether the offering of cafeteria flexible work arrangements is an essential factor to consider. Additional research could study types of flexible work arrangements and correlate each with the employee himself or herself setting up the plan versus the employer’s offering and assigning specific flexible work arrangements to the employee.  Included in this aspect is to consider the extent to which human resource managers should determine the alternate work arrangement in tandem with all relevant parties, including the supervisor, employee, and the HR specialist.

Conclusion

This study provides some relevant insight into the idea that workers are prone to being motivated and creative when they have flexibility in their work arrangement. Additionally, the findings show that it is not necessarily only flexibility that is the critical feature; instead, it is offering by the employer to allow the employee to have the freedom to develop the plan that best suits them and adapts to fluctuating circumstances.  Thus, autonomy in alternative work arrangements is vital to maintaining an enthused workforce and high-quality work performance.  Alternate work arrangements equate to the employer treating employees as human beings, rather than assets to exploit. Further, the findings point in the direction that human resource managers should appreciate that each worker has a unique set of needs.  Therefore, offering a flexible work set-up paradigm in itself is not enough to motivate the twenty-first-century employee. Instead, the administration needs to provide each employee with a level of freedom to determine their work set-up.

This research and others to follow will contribute to the knowledge about the level to which sovereignty in flexible work arrangements plays a role in motivation and work performance levels. One particular challenge to initiating autonomy in flexible work arrangements is factoring in the unique nature of companies.  For example, some smaller companies may not have the capacity to offer a variety of autonomy levels without jeopardizing the company’s bottom-line. Also, the service they provide may not lend itself to delivering distinguished degrees of worker freedom to set their unique flexible plan.  As the study examined employees in three businesses, two of which were in the same industry but the other in a different one, the findings may not be necessarily relevant across-board. Therefore, it is vital to learn about the extent to which other factors, such as culture, play a role in motivation and autonomy in work flexibility. These challenges and nuances, along with the variegated results of this study, show that we have much more to learn about the correlation between autonomy in alternate work arrangements and motivation levels. Still, the findings are valuable in that they show that when considering the link between flexibility in work arrangements and motivation, the element of worker autonomy in the process is a critical facet.  

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Author: : Janet Eisbrenner a student at LIGS University, under the supervision ofPhDr. Markéta Hinková, PhD., DBA, MBA

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