Multitasking our way to low productivity

I am sure we have all had the feeling that we have had a very busy day at the office and yet not actually accomplished much. Unless we have exceptional self-control we dip in and out of email and social media and work on a number of different documents and tasks at the same time. This is especially noticeable at conferences when delegates are more often seen looking at a computer or tablet screen than at the speaker.

I was intrigued by a couple of diagrams in the March issue of Harvard Business Review, pp30-31, which showed the working day patterns of two very different people. They were using a software application from RescueTime which tracks which applications are being used. In one case there were 277 switches between tasks and in the second case 496! Even with 277 switches around 85% of the time was productive, but in the second example only 33%. This ability and propensity to multitask is going to be a personal and management challenge as digital workplaces provide access to multiple activity streams profiled to our requirements but potentially very disruptive in meeting personal and business objectives.

The RescueTime application only measures time on a desk pc so does not take into account time spent on the telephone or on a tablet, but that will only add to the task disruptions. The RescueTime blog is well worth reading. Although one purpose is customer support there are some very interesting comments about ways to enhance personal and business productivity. A good example is a recent post on email which suggests that we may be spending a day and a half on email management each week.

So much of the writing around digital workplaces extolls the virtues of being immediately available to support colleagues and to work effectively on a wide range of business tasks. The charts in HBR show very graphically that we have a significant challenge to manage our working day. I think that one of the reasons I like working on my iPad is that it forces me to concentrate on one task at a time. When tablets go multitasking then the combined consequences of employees working simultaneously on their smartphone, tablet and pc could have a serious negative impact on business performance.

Martin White