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Multitasking: Productivity scourge or boon?

By Gigi Foster  March 21, 2016

You're on a conference call, while scanning your email inbox, and someone walks in for your signature on a document, a Skype chat pops up on your screen, and all the while, in the back of your mind, you're planning strategy about an u​pcoming meeting.

If this sounds familiar you're not alone – almost every manager, at companies large and small, does it every day.

It seems we're all hyper-busy at work these days, often juggling multiple activities at the same time and struggling to focus on any of them. However, this observation seems to run counter to one of the fundamental arguments of economics: that worker specialisation has increased over time and delivers increased efficiency and thereby increased productivity.

Henry Ford's production line, the industrial-age equivalent of Adam Smith's pin factory, is the classic example. Everyone had a single, specific job, and when all hands came together, more could be produced in less time because of this single-minded specialisation of every worker.

Why do we seem to observe the opposite in modern workplaces? And is Smith's and Ford's implicit assumption true – that switching between tasks means wasting time?

Many office workers will tell you that by not being specialised, we seem to be more efficient. Who is correct?​

One clear reason for modern freneticism is the availability of personal, mobile technology. It is now cheap enough that everyone has access to an internet enabled mobile device, meaning multiple active connections to the rest of the world are continuously 'on'.

Like having a baby on your hip, the mobile in your pocket provides a constant presence of the rest of humanity, and hence more or less constant interaction, unless one actively withdraws.

And indeed, tempting as it is to switch Wi-Fi off, ignore emails, or close Facebook, it can take a lot of time to get back up to speed. Therefore, many of us prefer to be perennially in contact.

The modern worker also sits at a desk with many of those communication tools, and more, in easy reach. Mobile and traditional phones, email, chatting tools – even an old dusty fax machine if you still have one.

All this technology in a workspace augments the opportunities offered to the worker by his mobile device. Using these tools is far less costly than using the old-fashioned communication system of typing up a letter and mailing it, so even if a bit of time is lost in switching from one to the other, the costs saved would seem likely to outweigh those switching costs.

However, leaving aside the windfall gains in productivity we've all experienced due to technological improvements, is modern multitasking itself actually good for productivity?

New research at UNSW Business School shows that it may well be.

In a new book, The Economics of Multitasking, which I co-edited with Charlene M. Kalenkoski from Texas Tech University, the nature and patterns of multitasking both at home and in the workplace are explored.

Not only do many workers engage in multiple activities at once, but even in a formal sense multitasking within a single position at any given firm has risen over time as work teams, job rotation, and other flexible work practices have become the norm.

That may challenge many workers, but it seems that they not only cope but in fact become more productive, as noted by Parama Chaudhury of University College London in her chapter, 'Multitasking and the Returns to Experience'.

Chaudhury finds that such practices are associated with higher returns to experience among workers – meaning that for every year of experience, a worker's wage rises more when exposed to such work practices than when not.

The implication of this is quite simply that flexible work practices lead to workers getting better more quickly at more activities. Having many skills, and being flexible in terms of work activities, is a dimension of worker quality that can directly enhance productivity.

In the home too, research confirms that multitasking offers people the opportunity to get more done in less time, and that contrary to received wisdom, the costs of this multitasking in terms of stress or other welfare effects can be relatively small.

Of course, multitasking should not be taken to extremes, and we all know of cases where office workers are so overloaded they struggle just to get the basics done. But so long as managers are aware of and sensitive to this, workers can be encouraged to switch between tasks and achieve more.

Modern managers may find it makes business sense to welcome and develop the mental flexibility of their mobile-addicted 'jacks of all trades', rather than trying in vain to get them to focus on doing just one thing perfectly.

Everyone has their physical and mental limits, but gently encouraging the ability to adapt, through regular multitasking, might not be a productivity scourge after all.

In fact, done well, it may be a boon.

Gigi Foster is an associate professor in the school of economics at UNSW Business School. A version of this post appeared in the South China Morning Post.

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