The Price We Pay for Multitasking at Work

I walked into one of my favorite coffee shops recently and immediately noticed how busy it was. Nearly every seat was filled, and there were a few people waiting for their orders near the counter. As I approached the register, a barista was pouring an enormous bag of beans into the grinder. Another was barbacking, shuffling left and right to carry dishes and wipe surfaces. A third employee, dressed differently to show that he was the manager, was fiddling with two pour-over stands.

I waited quietly, watching the flurry of activity. The barista loading the grinder spotted me out of the corner of her eye and said, loud enough for the others to hear, “Hi. We’ll be right with you.”

That got the manager’s attention, and he turned away from his pour-overs to face the iPad that ran the register app. “What can I get you today?”

He was still looking at the pour-over stands, so I replied, “I’m in no rush. Take your time with what you’re doing.”

“Oh no, it’s fine. I can multitask,” he said.

So I placed my order. He punched in the drink, still not looking at me, and paused to ask me to repeat my food order. When he swiveled the iPad to face me so I could pay, he took the opportunity to turn back to the pour-overs. I swiped my card, punched in a tip, and watched the app crash. “Looks like the payment didn’t go through,” I said.

“Don’t worry about it. I’m sure it went through,” he replied.

Multitasking seems like a core competency for almost any job, yet humans aren’t designed for it.

“Really?” I said. “It never said the payment was accepted before crashing.”

He opened the app and checked the ledger. No payment. Apologizing, he took my card to charge me. This entire time, he hadn’t been looking at me. He handed my card back, plopped my cookie onto a plate, and chirped a detached “thank you.” As I picked up the dish, he turned to the espresso machine and started playing with it. I shuffled off to find a table.

Ten minutes later, the tea I’d ordered had yet to appear so I approached the register again. The manager was still brewing espresso and trying to listen to a customer’s order at the same time. Seeing me, he turned away from the other customer to ask if I needed anything.

“Has that tea finished steeping yet?” I asked.

His face formed that look we all get when we don’t remember something we know we should have. He strode to the bar where the completed orders are placed and scanned it, finding no teapots. On his way back to me, he glanced at the espresso orders and called for a barista to finish filling them. When he reached me, he apologized again and asked which tea I’d ordered.

I got my tea a few minutes later, delivered right to my table, with a free drink token resting on top of the pot.

While the manager took extra pains to clean up his mistakes and remind me that I matter as his customer, the situation highlights a chronic problem that plagues managers, salespeople, support reps, and business leaders every day. Our work asks us to track multiple things at once and switch contexts frequently. Multitasking seems like a core competency for almost any job, yet humans aren’t designed for it.

Decades of research have examined the impacts of multitasking, and the conclusions are clear. As one psychiatrist puts it, multitasking is a “mythical activity” we convince ourselves we should be able to do. When we try, we merely get in the way of real productivity.

Tracking several dissimilar tasks at once — like brewing coffee while taking a customer’s order — is not something our brains can do efficiently. It can lead to errors in our work and huge delays. Intense multitasking can even create stress that can damage memory. Moreover, it’s nearly impossible to learn anything new while trying to multitask. Information needs to sit in short-term memory before being shuffled into long-term memory. Switching focus between contexts flushes short-term memory before anything can be stored.

A few years ago, as the manager of a small software team, I experienced the consequences of multitasking firsthand. In truth, I wasn’t just the people manager; I was also the project manager and the software architect. I had to select and create the software tools and components, teach the team how to use those tools, plan their work sprints, groom the backlog, and mentor them on their job skills. Each day brought emails, project updates, “Hey David” interruptions from the team, and phone calls from the product owner. It seemed like multitasking was the only way to survive, but I often found my scattered attention slowing down my team’s work.

While I was working in the code base one day, I discovered some changes to the core architecture. One of my developers had changed some critical infrastructure to address a complex problem. The change made our entire application run more smoothly. When I asked him about it, he said he’d found the inefficiency when talking with our client. He’d worked through a solution and coded it up, gotten a peer to review, and pushed the changes into the code repository after writing a few tests.

When managers multitask between operations and relationships, they end up looking at people as objects.

As the architect and project manager, I felt horrified — and indignant. He hadn’t bothered to go through the normal steps for starting such work. He never let me review the work’s priority to decide when it should be done. He hadn’t so much as asked my opinion about the architecture that I owned! And yet he’d competently addressed an important business need using systems thinking while collaborating with his teammates. Still, I couldn’t get over myself. I asked why he hadn’t worked with me on the change. His response floored me:

I never feel like you’re really listening when I talk about my work with you. With all the little things you’re always taking care of, you hardly have the attention span to hold a morning check-in meeting. This needed deep focus and lots of conversation to figure out, so I decided to handle it on my own.

I’d like to tell you that I grabbed that man’s hand and pumped it up and down vigorously while offering him a raise and a new title. I’d like to tell you I didn’t give him a half-assed “thanks” before chastising him with backhanded commentary on roles and responsibilities. I’d like to tell you he didn’t later, after many more interactions that must have made him feel unseen and underappreciated, leave my company to take a much higher position at a well-funded startup.

The cost of managerial multitasking is amplified by its impact on others. Not only does it damage your own productivity, it goes hand in hand with micromanaging your team. And two of the biggest challenges in business, employee engagement and customer satisfaction, become even more difficult when we split our attention.

A manager’s job is to make a team work well together. They have to handle operational nuisances to keep the team functioning and well coordinated with the rest of the company. They are responsible to individual team members: people who need coaching and mentorship, conflict management, and a positive workplace culture. When managers multitask between operations and relationships, they end up looking at people as objects. And when objects contribute inefficiently toward a goal, they become obstacles. Because spreadsheets and emails are more easily influenced than people, we slip into seeing a world full of obstacles where there used to be human beings. No wonder micromanagement is one of the top complaints about bosses.

Process and procedure are never as important to business as people.

As is commonly said, people join companies and leave managers. Good employees, especially those who show promise for future leadership, quit jobs when they feel micromanaged. Even without falling into the trap of micromanagement, managers can leave people feeling disconnected, uncared for, and unimportant by allowing distractions to enter an interaction. Over time, these impressions stick and create disengaged teammates. Process and procedure are never as important to business as people.

Likewise, consumers stick with brands that create a positive relationship with them. Each interaction with a customer offers an implicit promise of attention and care. Whether a company follows through on that promise defines the relationship. In a role that faces customers, it always pays to prioritize personal interactions. Interruptions and notifications, fumbling with technology, and keeping track of operations all interfere with personal connection. Simple conversational skills go a long way, like paying attention when the customer speaks, remembering what they said, using eye contact, and telling them what you gathered from the exchange. When these details are overlooked or forgotten, the customer feels overlooked or forgotten, too.

Whether it makes sense or not, multitasking is an unavoidable part of some jobs. A line cook at a diner has to juggle a half-dozen orders at a time. A software developer working in a mature code base has to refer to several documents and sections of code at once. A dev/ops or IT engineer might be running 10 shells across three monitors.

While it’s perhaps impossible to avoid multitasking completely, whenever possible it should be relegated to jobs that deal entirely with objects and technology. In any company, precious few roles can stand to allow frequent multitasking. Leadership and management need to cultivate relationships with employees. Salespeople, customer support reps, marketers, and account managers need to cultivate relationships with customers.

One solution for restructuring people-focused roles is obvious: delegate. Take all your non-people tasks and give them to individual contributors so you can handle people management. By giving your attention expressly to the people who work under you, you generate several benefits for everyone involved. Your people receive the attention and nurturance they need to develop their careers. They get a better working relationship with you, and relationships within the team improve as well.

When you cater to employees’ human need for connection and social support, the company benefits from a more collaborative work culture, more engaged employees (read: higher retention and productivity), and more on-the-job career development for future leaders. And you get to slow down, dig deeper into your work, and feel the satisfaction of accomplishment.

That said, leaders and managers do still need to engage in hard-skill tasks. For these, remember that focused attention gets work done. Productivity hacks for creating more focus abound: Pomodoro timers, reserving a private meeting room, putting a “do not disturb” placard on your desk, etc. (To repeat all the techniques here would waste your time and scatter your attention.) And updating your work style to accentuate relationships and focus doesn’t have to happen suddenly. It can be changed by small degrees. Start by building little habits that help you make different choices each time you take on a new task or switch to a relational context.

For example, a coffee shop manager could place every order next to the machine needed to brew that product and immediately return to the register whether there’s a new customer waiting or not. The habit of returning to the register without working on anything else will set in quickly and help dispel the urge to start brewing drinks. A corporate manager or senior leader can start with the habit of responding to everyone who visits their desk by closing the lid of their laptop immediately. (Laptops are great at saving their state; nothing will be lost.) This creates space to make eye contact and hold a real conversation without distractions.

If that’s too stressful, start with the habit of taking a slow, deep breath when someone visits. (Then explain that you aren’t mad at them; you’re just giving your mind a chance to refocus.) And then close the lid. Because good eye contact matters.

All Rights reserved for David Saab

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