Working conditions in projects

a study of motivation and job satisfaction among people working in knowledge-intensive projects

Tomas Blomquist, Ph.D., Umeå School of Business and Economics, Department of Business Administration, Umeå University
Margareta Gällstedt, Ph.D. student, Umeå School of Business and Economics, Department of Business Administration, Umeå University

The usage of projects is an emerging phenomenon in business and society. Ekstedt, Lundin, Söderholm, and Wirdenius (1999) and Midler (1995) discuss this “projectification” trend. Many industries and companies, though, conduct large proportions of production in more traditional work forms. In areas such as knowledge-intensive industries, projects seem to have become the norm of operations. Assuming the industries continue to become even more knowledge-intensive in the future, the project work form certainly will become especially important (Ekstedt et al 1999). Working life in addition continues to change, due to the emergence of new industries, development in technology, and new consumer behaviors, as well as development in the way services and products are provided. The number of knowledge-intensive projects is growing in society and increasing the need to study work life conditions within these projects.

Projects consist of project manager and project team members. Texts on project managers has often either given descriptions of a superhuman or outlined general management skills, such as leadership, communication, negotiation, problem solving, and ability to influence the organization. Empirical research on project managers is usually based on surveys, like; managerial skills (Anderson 1992) and project manager's workload (Kuprenas et al 2000). In the literature, it is uncommon to find case descriptions on how they work, make decisions, perceive their work situation, and what motivates them in their work. There are some studies on motivation in projects, motivation by project and functional managers in matrix organizations (Dunne 2001), and the importance of motivation in projects (Tampoe and Thurloway 1992).

Without neglecting the importance of the project manager, projects are not run by the project manager alone. Team members are also involved. However, the project members are rarely the subjects of study in this field of research. Previous research has often focused on the project managers to the detriment of the team members. The studies that exist on teams often relate to “blue collar workers” or traditional operations in organizations (Moldaschl and Weber 1998) and research done on knowledge work teams (Janz et al 1997) are not as common as the previous. Nevertheless, research on teams is rather extensive. By definition work teams can be of different types, Sundstrom (1999) for example, divided work teams in six types: 1) project, 2) production, 3) service, 4) action/performing, 5) management, and 6) parallel. Work done regarding teams in projects are; communication in product development teams (Katz 1982), performance of research and development (R&D) teams (Keller 1986), more recent work have been done on project managers’ attempt to influence team members to get results (Bohlen et al 1998), and how corporate policies and culture and commitment support project teams (Sweeney and Lee 1999). There is also a call for more research about project teams (Kirkman and Rosen 1999). As for research on project managers, research done on project members is also often conceptual or based on surveys. Exceptions exist though, such as the work done by Gersick (1988) or cases like those written by Gersick and Eisenstat (Hackman 1990). In sum there is a general need for empirical research both done as case studies and as surveys about working life in knowledge-intensive projects overall. The purpose of this paper is to investigate how project managers and project team members in knowledge-intensive projects perceive motivation and job satisfaction in their daily working life.

Knowledge Workers, Motivation, and Job Satisfaction

Project work, project workers, and the notion that work should be completed are natural concepts in project management. Conceptualized, agreed, transformed, and evaluated are different phases in which the project sponsor, project manager, and team members have to agree upon what the outcome is. This creation process of delivering results and solutions to others on the project or to an end user may create pressures on both project managers and team members. These pressures, affect them in their efforts to reach the deadline on budget and within scope. All of the above is also true in this study. But, in this creation process, in knowledge-intensive projects within the consulting information technology (IT) and telecommunication industries, the most important factors will be the motivation and job satisfaction of people with the knowledge.

Knowledge Workers

To finalize project goals, workers in different roles and with different knowledge will be of high importance. These workers, with their knowledge, skills, and efforts, make things happen in the creation of results. Projects may be more or less knowledge intensive. This paper does not look at what is often referred to as knowledge management. The interest here is focusing on knowledge-intensive projects, although, knowledge formation and knowledge transferring (cf. Polanyi 1958; Nonaka and Cusumano 1995) are important issues for knowledge-workers. Thus, we here describe knowledge-intensive projects, knowledge workers, and organizational forms often used in knowledge-intensive industries.

The concepts of the knowledge-intensive company (Alvesson 2000) as well as knowledge-intensive project are problematic. Here, we declare that knowledge-intensive projects are projects with either a large scope or complex, vague or hazy goals, or done by knowledge workers. In preproject and implementation phases of knowledge-intensive projects, members become crucial to the design and integration of different tasks into a system. Workers become important and valuable resources to achieve project results; they become assets instead of costs (cf. Drucker 1999), making these workers the most significant resource of the company (Alvesson 2000). Traditional examples of knowledge-workers are lawyers, engineers, computer scientists, and consultants, all have knowledge and skills to work with ideas, symbols, and other abstractions (Lee and Maurer 1997). Giving them the ability to solve, manage and organize large portions of their work into self-managing or self-regulating teams (Hackman 1986; Pearce and Ravlin 1987).

Organizing work in project teams is common for many knowledge-intensive companies (Kidder 1981; Sundstrom et al 1990). Previous research on knowledge workers involved in different types of projects are studies on: research groups (Cheng 1983), product development teams (Katz and Allan 1985; Keller 1985; Keller 1994; Ancona and Caldwell 1992), and information system (IS) design teams (Henderson and Lee 1992). Even if there is research done, much of this research have been related to the handling of information and team performance. There is a gap in our understanding of working conditions and work-related issues regarding knowledge-intensive project work.

Motivation

Motivation can be described as the drive or the reasons that direct an individual towards some action or behavior. Research on work motivation is substantial, and the field of motivation could be viewed as being the cornerstone in the science of human behavior, and therefore a central concern in organizational research (cf. Baron 1991). This has led to an extensive development of theories in the field. However, the theories of motivation vary in analysis levels when dealing with the stages in the process of motivation (Locke and Henne 1986). This has resulted in confusion, mainly due to the lack of frameworks for integrating the extensive number of theories (Locke and Latham 1990; Locke 1991). Due to the disparities in what can be known about people, philosophical orientations, and the different levels of analysis used in the body of motivation theory, there is no general definition on work motivation accepted. One definition that corresponds to how we view motivation is Pinder's definition. Work motivation, is defined by Pinder as:

a set of energetic forces that originate both within as well as beyond an individual's being, to initiate work-related behaviors, and to determine its form, direction, intensity and duration. (Pinder 1998, 11)

Studies on motivation through job enlargement and job enrichment (McGregor 1960; Hertzberg 1966) and work redesign (Hackman and Oldham 1976, 1980) are important contributions to the understanding of working life. Studies build hypothesis around these theories. Nevertheless, Sjöberg, and Lind (1994) reported only a weak relation between Hertzberg's two-factor theory and work motivation. The Job Characteristic Model (JCM) developed by Hackman and Oldham has been studied by Loher et al (1985) and Freid and Ferris (1987) who have found weak relationship between task characteristics and performance. But, as performance is a central concept in all project work since goals define the performance of a project, we need to include other aspects besides those incorporated in the theories underlining the understanding of working life in this study.

The motivational concepts found by Latham and Locke (1979) such as employee involvement, concrete goals, and feedback, correspond greatly to much of the work done on projects (Blomquist and Gällstedt 2001). These concepts can be compared to the critical success factors found by Pinto and Slevin (1989) within successful projects. The critical success factors can make projects attractive and give people an impression that its goals are attainable, well defined in time, and have a clear plan of action. In summary, we argue that raised arguments correspond well to Pinder's definition on work motivation above.

Motivation is usually coupled to the concept of engagement and job satisfaction without explaining what one is engaged with or satisfied for and the consequences on performance. Because job satisfaction is a frequently used construct as a measure of work motivation in organizations (Schou 1991), it is important to examine this concept in this study.

Job Satisfaction

Just as motivation has, job satisfaction has received much attention. Although critics are concerned about the loose proximity between job satisfaction theories and measurements used. There seem to be a high level of agreement on the meaning of the job satisfaction construct among social scientists. Job satisfaction is often explained as an individual's general attitudinal view towards his or her job (cf. Porter et al 1975, 53–54; Locke and Henne 1986, 21; Hodson 1991, 271–290).

Hackman and Oldham (1980) linked with the motivational potential of jobs is individuals’ general satisfaction about the job. When enriched opportunities for personal growth at work are given (referring to work content), employees report that these opportunities are personally satisfying (op. cit., 89). Although job enrichment has been shown to sometimes decrease satisfaction regarding various aspects of the work context (for example, pay, supervision, and relations to co-workers) these are not included in the JCM and its outcomes (op. cit.). The urge, therefore, is to also include contextual aspects when discussing individuals’ perception of motivation and satisfaction at work. The core job characteristics influencing individuals’ critical psychological states are likewise important to infer. In order to achieve understanding of working conditions in projects, the individuals’ experience of meaningfulness of the work, experienced responsibility for work outcomes, and knowledge of the results of the work activities, seem necessary to examine (Hackman and Oldham 1980).

Hackman and Oldham argue that the experienced meaningfulness of work is influenced by the job characteristics skill variety, task identity, and task significance. Skill variety refers to the degree to which a job requires a variety of different activities being carried out, involving the use of an individual's different skills and talents. Task identity refers to the degree to which a job needs to have a visible outcome, and task significance refers to the degree to which a job has impact on the lives of others. The characteristic that promotes feelings of personal responsibility towards work outcomes is autonomy. Autonomy refers to the degree to which a job provides selfgovernance to the individual in scheduling the work, and determines procedures to carry it out. As for the knowledge of results of the work, this is affected by the feedback an individual gets from doing the work. Feedback refers to the degree to which carrying out required activities of the job offers the individual information about the effectiveness of his performance (Hackman and Oldham 1980, 78–80).

Research Question

With the increasing projectification of society (Ekstedt et al 1999) it will be interesting to test the relevance of existing theories on people working within projects.

Based on the above, we set out to explore the following two propositions:

Proposition 1: Knowledge workers working on projects are more likely to be motivated if they perceive the project goals as concrete, and challenging, and if the time frame to reach the goal is clearly defined.

Proposition 2: Job satisfaction for knowledge workers working on projects will depend on; 1) how they perceive the use of a variety of skills; 2) how they identify their task and the significance of task; and 3) the level of autonomy and the feedback on performed tasks.

Research Method

This paper rests upon empirical data from an ongoing research project on motivation and stress in project work. The method used in the project is a multiple case study approach, focusing on differences between project team members’ and project managers’ perceptions about the work situation in single projects within multiproject environments (cf. Yin 1984). The multiple case study approach is used in order to make an analysis within each case as well as crosscase analysis (cf. Eisenhardt 1989). The data used in this paper is based on interview and company material, collected from five different cases.

A combination of semistructured and in-depth interviews with both project managers and project team members have been done. A team of two researchers conducted the interviews in the respondents’ companies. Recordings were done during all encounters, and transcripts were promptly put in writing after each interview. The individuals contributing information are all experienced project members.

Companies, Projects, and Persons

All of the studied companies have been organizing work in projects for a long time and project management procedures are well established. Stage-gate models and organizations around projects are examples of the different project management procedures in use. Companies CPD1, CPD2, and CPD3 deal mainly with product development. Normally, projects in these companies are complex with a large proportion of development of new technologies and systems. Employees in these companies have academic backgrounds. The other two companies, CDIT4 and CDIT5 both deliver IT-solutions to customers outside their own organizations.

Exhibit 1 shows five dimensions describing studied companies, their projects in regard to market and technical uncertainty, their project scoop, and the geographic diffusion of projects. The table above draws upon previous work on project classifications (Wheelwright and Clark 1992; Shenhar and Dvir 1996; Evaristo and van Fenema 1999). Project managers and project teams in these companies all have extensive experience in working in projects distributed at different locations at a time. These companies are also very much aware that they will be challenged by changes in technology and by competitors on the market.

Exhibit 1. Type of Companies and Type of Projects

Type of Companies and Type of Projects

Exhibit 2. Age, Sex, Education, and Years of Experience in Industry

Age, Sex, Education, and Years of Experience in Industry

Exhibit 2 gives a view of the demographics of those interviewed. Ages from twenty-six to fifty-five, all except one have at least four years experience in the industry in which they are working. Exhibit 3 shows project experience, type of role, number of project involve at the same time, and project size, here measured in number of persons involved in the project.

Perceptions of Motivation and Job Satisfaction

Priority

Strategically valuable projects are given priority within the studied organisations. Such projects have a sense of urgency or importance around them. If projects become prioritized and have been valued as important, respondents perceive the project mission to be motivating and challenging. This perceived challenge is really motivating, especially in the set-up phase of a project. As one of the project managers said:

I really wanted to join in. (PM1)

Moreover, a project's priority in the organization seems to build its prestige. The study suggests that some project managers’ seem to want to manage high prestige projects rather than projects with lower prestige.

Exhibit 3. Experience of Projects, Project Actor, Number of Projects, and Project Size

Experience of Projects, Project Actor, Number of Projects, and Project Size
… some projects are more—beneficial to have taken part in … (PM5)

This appears to be true concerning the selection of single projects. While project managers managing multiple projects seem to like a distribution of high and low prestige projects.

I'd rather have one important one at a time, or two or three smaller ones. (PM4)

Project Size

According to the respondents: the larger the project the less project work positively relates to motivation and job satisfaction. This implies that when a project is smaller and few individuals are assigned to it, the individual's feelings of contribution to the outcome increase. Supporting this reasoning are statements such as:

In small projects you have to take personal responsibility to get things done. (Project Manager)

On the other hand, when projects’ are larger and involve more people, respondents express feelings on this issue like:

“only being a small cog in the big wheel” or “one is replaceable” (Project Manager)

Number of Projects

Projects in the studied companies are all in multiproject settings implying that the projects’ are being carried out in parallel, and managers handle more than one project at a time, and team members may have more than one project manager. Respondents have different experiences on this issue. Two of the team member respondents signed on to multiple projects refer to this experience. Their understanding is that the more projects someone is involved in, the more difficult it is to feel adequate in all projects. The perceived motivation and job satisfaction decrease as the number of projects involved increases, they argue. When referring to previous work in several simultaneous projects, the team member, who at the time of the study was working in only one project stated:

… this was no fun, and it is nothing that can be done regularly, since it is too costly for the individual well-being. (Project Manager)

It is perceived that job satisfaction and motivation decline when different managers’ demands on team members are mismatched. A project team member involved in immensely many projects states:

Well, if I have problems meeting demands from the different projects [and their managers] and feel that something has to be done about this.… and have put in all extra time possible, I get the project managers to discuss and agree on an arrangement solving these conflicting demands. (Project Team Member)

The project managers he means, have to work out the priorities for him when he cannot do so by himself.

Several of the studied project managers have experiences regarding parallel projects that often concern projects overlapping each other in time. These managers tend build up their own and team members’ motivation to their project in the initiating phase. They argue that it is important keeping team motivated in the project duration. This is usually done through personal and team meetings, notes, phone calls, and other types of interactions. One of the project managers has personal meetings with the individual members regularly discussing issues about life in the project and life in general.

Influence Others and Visions of Clear Time Frames

The possibility to influence others to realize a project goal, is according to the studied project managers. The project manager respondents argue that team members’ work motivation and job satisfaction is crucial in order to reach the project goal. The same applies for themselves in order to hold project on track. Project managers, as well as team members, have to feel motivated in order to bring forth the efforts towards a project goal. Indicated from the study is that the clarity of the set project terms increases participants’ motivation and even helps them in reaching the goal. When the goals and time frame are made explicit, project team members report feelings of confidence in realizing different milestones and eventually reaching the goals. The many deadlines for milestones and the deadlines for goals seem to promote motivation among the participants. Some of the participants reported that in cases where they had experienced intense pressure or stress, the deadlines are utilized as solutions to resolve the pressure.

Influence on Work

Having the possibility to influence one's own work is argued by the respondents to increase motivation. Factors connected to this aspect are having the ability and being entrusted to plan how and when a specific task should be done, adjusting time spent on a specific tasks, decide on and create improvements as the project progresses, and so on. It seems as some degree of freedom promote motivation and job satisfaction experienced. One of the team member respondents had left two former employers due to the low possibilities to influence his own work. When discussing these low possibilities, he referred to the CEOs’ demands exceeding his capabilities (he had the role of project manager at the time). In his case, this meant too little time (and resources) available to meet set terms. Threats of a lawsuit and other things were common from the CEO and the respondent did not cope well with this and left.

Relate Task to Project Outcome

Relationships between task and project outcome by the studied persons often related to project size. That is, the smaller the project, the greater the possibilities for the individual to relate his or her own work task to project result. As one of the team members says:

It is easier to feel an actual contribution to progress when the project is small. (Project Manager)

Regarding the studied project managers’ possibilities to relate tasks to project outcomes, some of them seem to balance the responsibilities on results between own and team member performance. One project manager stated:

Even though I am responsible for pushing the project through and can be really excited about a successful implementation, I can't take all the credit for it alone.… I praise the members on my project for the good results. (Project Manager)

Project managers’ also work to give members these possibilities:

We work very intensely in the start-up to concretize project goal and responsibilities on tasks, together with the team members.… so that we all know what to do and how everyone's’ task is connected. (Project Manager)

Another project manager talks about larger, more complex projects:

Some members need more feedback on task to be able to see their contribution to results. (Project Manager)

Feedback

Project size is important. The larger the project, the greater the need for feedback on tasks to project members. Still, the feedback on tasks is created by individuals themselves, rather than given to them by others. Individuals create their own measures for judging performance on certain tasks. Supporting this reasoning is a team member's statements:

“I know I have done a good job, if the application fits together with other parts” or “one way to assure this [judging task outcome] is to have really good documentation done on the coding made.” (Project Team Member)

Nevertheless, it seems like project team members rely on feedback on the specific tasks to guide them towards the project goal. It therefore can be argued that they perceive feedback on task as important and as linked to motivation and perceived job satisfaction.

Social Relations

The social climate within the project seems to contribute to perceptions of working conditions. Individuals refer to their relations to co-workers as important, especially when stuck with difficult problem solving. A team member reported:

“I know I can go to [senior specialist on team] to tell about my problem and ask for help and get it” and “if I didn't so much like working with [names] then of course it would be easier to leave for other assignments or companies.” (Project Team Member)

The respondents also talk about previous co-workers who had left the company, but have returned because they perceived the job they switched to was no better, and they were missing their former colleagues.

Friends and family is important in peoples’ lives and the studied individuals are no exception in this respect. The team member referred to when his manager threatened him and he resigned describe the workload consequences:

Working so much all the time, I was no fun to be around. In my spare time I could not put up enough effort to do any thing but flip the TV remote control or sleep. Mates in my sport team and other friends’ thought I didn't want anything to do with them. I was irritated and angry, and as it turned out I almost lost all my friends and hobbies, due to this. (Project Team Member)

Even if this example seems as an extreme experience, the study suggests there is a tendency that projects are rather time pressured. This implies that overtime has to be put in, for both project managers and members. Even if that is expected of them, it seldom causes problems as serious as for the man above. Supporting the importance of family, although being committed to work, is, indicated by statements such as:

I tend to do the extra hours during early mornings, because then family life suffers less. (Project Team Member)

Discussion

Motivation is crucial to have for the knowledge workers striving to meet set terms. Job satisfaction is also important to people in knowledge-intensive work, not only because it is needed in a specific project. It is furthermore important due to the fact that people in multiproject settings repetitively have to commit themselves to new projects. Job satisfaction and job commitment apparently foster loyalty and social identity for the individual (cf. Alvesson 2000).

The empirical study suggests that the project specifics, such as project size, and the clarity of tasks and of goals promotes motivation and job satisfaction among the knowledge-workers studied. This verifies the findings of Latham and Locke that goal setting is motivating (op. cit. 1979). Found in this study is that motivation is encouraged through those participatory activities where goals and tasks are defined and clarified. The importance of shared activities where goals are explicitly stated is obvious.

Evidently, the project size is an important dimension to consider while studying individuals perceptions of motivation. But, size is equally important for perceived job satisfaction, especially in small projects, where individuals’ easily conceive their own impact on project outcome. In larger projects, this could be more difficult, which indicates a greater need for communications on project tasks as well as goals. Managers might also need to increase efforts to motivate members on the project. The same reasoning seems to be applicable regarding project scope.

From the study, it is indicated that the respondents perceived a higher motivation if project goals were concrete, and challenging and had a clear deadline. Occasionally the set terms could change during a specific project. However, this does not challenge the importance of deadlines, milestones, or major deliveries on perceived motivation.

Job satisfaction attitudes for the studied project managers and team members partially depends on the use of many of their skills, the fact that they can identify their tasks, the task significance, experience autonomy and obtain feedback (Hackman and Oldham 1980). But, these attitudes in certain parts also appear dependent upon the social relations individuals have with other team members. On the one hand, this could mean that if a team has problems on a group level, it could harm job satisfaction and project performance. While on the other hand, if social relations among team participants is mutually stimulating and increases group dynamics, it certainly would increase job satisfaction (Sundstrom et al 1990). Reasons for this are that feedback and understanding of personal contributions become acknowledged within the team to a greater extent by the closeness and immediacy of the response. Moreover, individuals, in order to be motivated and satisfied with their jobs, have to be able to feel good about their relations to family and friends.

In cases were project participants lack the possibility of influencing their own work, this has a negative impact on perceived motivation and job satisfaction. This obviously can lead to turnover, with considerable implications for the company risking losses of its intellectual capital (cf. Drucker 1999; Wilson 2002).

In sum, what has been affecting motivation and job satisfaction for the studied project managers and project team members in their work situations are organizational aspects such as the organization's priority of projects, project size, number of projects, and the diffusion of projects. Other aspects more related to the scope of the individual, are things like possibilities to influence others, possibilities to influence own work, possibilities to relate individual task to project outcome, and feedback on performance. Besides all these aspects, social relations with coworkers and family also affect perceptions of motivation and job satisfaction.

The findings provide strong support for the two propositions set out to explore in this study. However, the differences on perceptions among the studied project managers and project team members in comparison to individuals in more traditional work settings stem from project specifics. These specifics include project size, time and goal focus, as well as the multiproject contextual issues. This implicate that further attention should be given to the development of instruments to measure job satisfaction and motivation in project work. Such instruments could bring wider understanding on how the project specifics and parallel projects influence working conditions and performance within projects.

Conclusions

Concluded in this study is that project specifics such as project size, task and goal clarity, and numbers of projects a person is assigned to at a time, as well as individuals’ social relations have effects on the perceived job satisfaction and motivation. That individuals need opportunities to influence their own work in order to be motivated and satisfied with their jobs can also be concluded here.

Our inducement for this type of research is to give top management, project managers and researchers a better basis for future project work. Managerial implications are that project managers need to consider factors others than those found in general management courses regarding the issues discussed. Suggestions for future research include the study of working conditions in other types of projects and conducting it across industries to discover possible differences between them. Moreover, it would be of interest to develop and test instruments to measure job satisfaction and motivation in projects. These measuring tools could give researchers understandings on how project size, task clarity, time frames of projects, and the number of parallel projects relation to working conditions in projects. Further, the development of tools and guidelines like these would help practitioners’ to monitor and guide motivation in projects.

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