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Multi-tasking and HR


Some people take that fact that they multi-task as a kind of heroic attribute. The implication is that they are so busy that they have to deal with ten things at once and that they do so with aplomb. If you ever felt sceptical about this then your feeling has been well supported by science. Studies show multitasking hurts short term memory, leads to increased incidence of depression and social anxiety and is a major contributor to cognitive overload.

The research findings that multi-tasking impairs performance is in no way surprising. Drivers who are lost turn off the radio, even though they are not attending to it that background noise cuts into their ability to function. Admittedly business people may need to switch back and forth between tasks; you may have only have fifteen minutes to work on a spreadsheet before having to rush off to a meeting, you may have to interrupt answering emails to take a call. However that sort of forced switching is different than thinking you can contribute to a meeting while answering emails, or work on a presentation while talking on the phone. Once we face up to the fact that multi-tasking is a bad idea; it is natural to conclude that we should try to minimize switching as well, such as turning off the phone when we are working on a report.

Who is responsible

I am less interested in convincing you not to multi-task than asking whether you, as HR leader, are responsible for managing multi-tasking in the organization. More broadly, if a technique comes along that reliably increases personal or organizational effectiveness is HR responsible for seeing that it is implemented? HR runs specific processes like recruiting, training, and benefits but what about new stuff, stuff that falls in the white space on the organization chart, not landing clearly in any one department’s area of responsibility? I am convinced that HR is responsible for considering anything that helps individuals, or groups of individuals, improve their performance. To be clear, the line manager has ultimate responsibility for their unit, however we need some place in the organization where experts in individual and group behaviour can make reasoned assessments of the value of new findings or techniques about human behaviour. That group is HR. Note the phrase ‘reasoned assessments’; we hear claims of ways to improve performance all the time; some are valid some are not. HR is an position to bring sceptical expertise in separating the wheat from the chaff. Multi-tasking does not violate legal regulations, in an office environment it is not a safety issue, however by reducing it we can improve performance. HR should consciously consider single-tasking as one of the ways to improve productivity and give it appropriate priority in the organization.

How do you make it happen

The main technique for reducing multi-tasking is education. It is not a complicated insight, once people are told that research shows multi-tasking degrades performance they usually nod their heads, they just need to hear the message from HR and hear it regularly enough that it sinks in.

There are some more specific things you can do to promote single-tasking:

  • Promote device-free meetings: If someone is answering email on their smartphone during a meeting then perhaps they did not need to be there at all. HR should promote the idea of device-free meeting; teams need to decide if they will be more effective if people turn off all their devices. They should be encouraged to give it a try.

  • Touch on it in on-boarding: Young people need to know that to be effective in the work place they should single task. It is good advice for someone beginning their career.

  • Discourage double screens: For the ambitious nerd there is nothing more exciting than having two or three computer screens. People will walk into your office and see a wall of data: how cool is that? Admittedly, it is really cool, but for most jobs it is not really effective. Multiple screens usually mean multiple distractions.

  • Teach the Pomodoro method: The Pomodoro method is a simple time management technique where you commit to really focus on the task for just 20 minutes, then take a break. In that “short” twenty minutes you single task, no running off for a snack, no shooting off a quick email, no sharing a joke with your colleague.

The Effective Organization

There are many elements behind effective organizations: structure, culture, talent, motivation and more. One of those elements is individual effectiveness. When we see an opportunity to seek more effectiveness HR should seize it.


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