Does Multi-Tasking Have a Place in the Workplace?

Multi-tasking might be the key to success in many jobs in today's work environment, according to at least one study.

Despite other research concluding that continually switching from one task to another is a drag on productivity and perhaps even dangerous (see below), one lead researcher believes multi-tasking may be getting a bad rap.

There's a popular misunderstanding about multi-tasking — that it involves doing more than one task at the same time, such as answering the phone while working on a computer. The human brain can't focus on two tasks in the same moment. In reality, multi-tasking is shifting from one task to another, often very rapidly.

"Although most people believe that when they are multi-tasking, they are actually doing more than one thing at a time, this is actually not the case," explains researcher Elizabeth Poposki, assistant professor of psychology in the School of Science at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis. "Neuroscientists tell us that the human brain is actually incapable of performing multiple tasks at once.

"What we are actually doing when performing multiple tasks is switching very quickly between them. These switches can be so fast that we do not even perceive them."

Poposki, and co-author Frederick Oswald of Rice University, published a study on the design of a Multitasking Preference Inventory (MPI) in the journal Human Performance. The Poposki-Oswald research is focused on how to measure individual polychronicity, or as the published study states, "an individual's preference for shifting attention among ongoing tasks..."

In other words, the research deals with how to measure an individual's preference for multi-tasking. The value of this research would be the development of an assessment — the MPI — employers could use to identify applicants and employees with a preference for work that demands switching between tasks.

Is multi-tasking counterproductive? Are employees wasting time when they continually switch tasks?

Poposki suggested results of studies concluding that multi-tasking negatively affects performance "are not necessarily relevant to real world multi-tasking situations."

She gives the example of people who often switch tasks when they are interrupted by a phone call or an e-mail. "This switch may, in fact, hurt their performance on the task they were working on before they got distracted," Poposki says, "but may benefit them in terms of overall performance. Because few people can get away with avoiding phone calls and e-mails until they are entirely finished with a project."

Poposki continues: "Essentially, in everyday situations people often must multi-task as a result of urgent tasks that pop up in the middle of other tasks. If they did not multi-task in response to the emergence of these tasks, they would certainly be perceived as poor performers overall. Another example is that of a pilot. He or she must multi-task in order to monitor various gauges and displays. Focusing only on one of these tasks would be very detrimental indeed."

So, multi-tasking is often unavoidable. "As a result, it is part of performance rather than being a detriment to performance," Poposki explains. "If managers have a particular belief regarding multi-tasking, it seems as though when this belief fits well with the tasks at hand and the employees' preferences, this would be a good thing. But if there is a mismatch, it may have a negative impact on employees' performance and perhaps even morale."

What does this multi-tasking study mean for employers?

It seems a given that people who prefer multi-tasking should be placed in jobs that give them the opportunity to multi-task. By the same token, people who prefer to focus on and complete one task at a time should be placed in jobs that require such a focus. The challenge is, how does an employer, manager or supervisor learn the preferred multi-tasking behavior preference of an applicant or employee?

Right now, it seems, there is no easy and reliable way to know if a job applicant or an employee has a preference for jobs with multi-tasking demands, or an aversion to multi-tasking. Poposki emphasizes that she and her associates are developing the MPI and hope to test its validity in a sample of working adults.

"I think there is evidence that if a particular job requires a certain temperament or way of responding to stimuli, that assessing those characteristics would be valuable," she explains. "Of course, with any assessment used in personality selection, there must be evidence that the characteristic being assessed is related to important job-related factors."

On this point, the published study states: "Extraverts, due to their lower baseline level of arousal and higher need for stimulation, tend to prefer situations where they are highly stimulated... Conversely, introverts, having a relatively high level of baseline arousal, prefer less stimulation. Therefore, due to the highly stimulating nature of multi-tasking, extraverts are generally drawn toward and introverts are generally drawn away from it. As a result, polychronicity [the preference for multi-tasking] and extraversion should theoretically be expected to relate to one another."

How Multi-Tasking Can Disrupt Performance

Although some jobs require multi-tasking and some employees thrive on such jobs, at least one study identified a risk.

The findings: Drive-through windows cause workflow interruptions that interfere with pharmacists' work and increase errors in filling prescriptions.

The study, led by Sheryl Szeinbach, professor of pharmacy practice and administration at Ohio State University, appeared in the International Journal for Quality in Health Care in 2008.

The survey of 429 U.S. pharmacists examined a number of possible causes of pharmacy errors. One of the significant findings was the impact of drive-through windows at drug stores. Szeinbach, in releasing the findings, said the pharmacists associated about 80 percent of errors with disruptions that interfered with their work.

And one of the disruptions? Szeinbach explained that one of the contributors to pharmacy errors might be the drive-through windows, which can place multi-tasking demands on the pharmacists. Activity triggered by the drive-through adds an additional task to several other tasks the pharmacist may be responsible for at a given moment.

Jennifer McFarland earlier concluded in the Harvard Management Update that multi-tasking is overrated. She stated:

"Companies may be vastly underestimating the time costs of multi-tasking. Mounting evidence shows that... a lot of jumping back and forth between activities can diminish rather than enhance productivity."

She cited research by David E. Meyer and colleagues at the University of Michigan that indicated "the brain goes through a kind of warm-up period whenever an individual begins a new task." She pointed out "even a 30-second distraction can be enough to derail you, and like a boiling pot of water removed from the burner, your brain needs time to warm up again afterward." The result: "... the associated costs can add up to as much as two to four hours a day [wasted]..."

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