Many American professionals are expected to own a smartphone at this point, and a growing number might have a range of other devices, from tablets to laptops. All of this only adds to the desktops most offices still revolve around and the broad array of programs and applications each of these devices can be used for, all in the name of productivity. The Wall Street Journal's Ruth Mantell, however, raises the issue that multitasking might not benefit productivity as much as many managers imagine.
Mantell spoke with Clifford Nass, the director of Stanford University's Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media Lab, about the impact multitasking. Nass suggests that multitasking, rather than helping productivity, might actually hurt it.
"It's unequivocally the case that workers who are doing multiple things at one time are doing them poorly," Nass told Mantell. "The human brain just really isn't built to switch rapidly from one task to another."
The biggest problems with multitasking arise with one of the growing problems of the modern era: attention span. As people are encouraged to pay attention to more and more sources of information, workers begin to make a habit of looking for new tasks. Rather than finishing a task and then checking a new email that came in, people might respond to the email immediately before eventually getting back to their original task. In the mean time, the flow of their work has been completely interrupted.
"[Workers are seduced by irrelevancy," Nass insisted. "They are constantly distracting themselves. They will look for distraction even when no such distraction exists."
Work flow is not the only issue, as constant interruptions can impact memory as well. Memory must transfer first from short-term to long-term, so by creating a constant flow of irrelevant data, more critical information gets lost.
Jonathan LaPook of CBS News offers an example of how limiting multitasking can improve a work environment as well as productivity. An architectural firm decided to severely restrict access to email and texting after seeing employees texting each other from across a room.
After one year under the new policies, LaPook visited the firm to learn that employees had actually found the system improved communication by forcing them to use more nuanced methods, like phone calls and face-to-face interaction. New employees were more readily exposed to client interaction, while all workers found more time to devote to their most relevant projects.