Think You Understand Multitasking?

Employment Technologies [By Joseph T. Sefcik, Jr.]

Multitasking is a critical success factor for today’s employees. Every day, employees face the fast-paced world of instant communication, customer requests, tight timelines, and multiple information sources—all that appear to require their immediate attention.

While we all appreciate the importance of multitasking, we may not know exactly what multitasking is and how it affects productivity and critical business outcomes. In conducting research for our employment test to evaluate multitasking ability, we’ve learned key aspects of this highly valued workplace dynamic.

Here are five key tips on multitasking and its impact on employee performance, satisfaction and success.

1  Understand what multitasking is . . . and isn’t

Generally, we think of multitasking as doing two or more activities at the same time. Research on brain function, however, indicates that we are not truly capable of processing information and solving multiple problems simultaneously. With the exception of rote, elementary tasks, our brains are wired to process one thing at a time. It may occur so fast that it seems simultaneous; nonetheless, it’s still only one at a time. No wonder we hear complaints about information overload, job stress, and employee burnout! At its best, effective multitasking is being able to make quick decisions about the sequence and importance of tasks and then proceeding to complete those tasks efficiently.

2 Reduce distractions to combat stress and increase productivity

Multitasking causes us to constantly shift back and forth between tasks. Just like driving in stop-and-go traffic as compared to highway driving, starting and stopping takes more time, more energy—and leads to more stress. Interruptions and distractions impede effectiveness. Multitasking at its worst is the frequent occurrence of simultaneous interruptions and distractions. This type of multitasking has been reported to cause as much as a 40 percent reduction in productivity. Not surprisingly, it also increases the incidents of mistakes. By limiting interruptions and keeping the employee work environment free of distractions, productivity increases, errors decrease, and employee stress levels are reduced.

3 Discover the truth about generational differences

Is multitasking best left to the Millennials? Not at all. While we recognize that the Millennial generation may be more comfortable with digital technology and devices, that alone does not determine effectiveness. Since multitasking is a process of selective concentration and focus, learning where and what to focus on is the real key to success. The distinction is that, initially, Millennials may be more accustomed to multiple sources of information at a faster pace. However, the basic challenge we experience with multitasking is similar. Switching attention between tasks can be difficult for people of all ages.

4 Realize the impact of multitasking on key success factors

While it’s true that multitasking is challenging, our research shows that some people are better at switching between tasks than others. We recently conducted a study in which we focused exclusively on multitasking ability for individuals working in a contact center environment (including such factors as speed and accuracy, comprehension, and navigation effectiveness). Based on this research, we found a wide variance in multitasking ability among participants. We also saw a significant relationship between multitasking ability and other success factors such as sales effectiveness. It certainly makes sense that employees who are better able to focus on customer cues and quickly navigate answers are more likely to instill customer confidence and better meet customer needs.

5 Pinpoint top multitaskers

Clearly, employees who can effectively manage a variety of tasks are ultimately more successful, less stressed, and more productive. So, how can you best screen for multitasking ability? Obviously, it’s not enough to simply ask candidates to rate their own multitasking ability. You need a realistic and objective measure of actual performance. For that reason, a work sample or simulation is your best option. When compared with other testing methods, these are proven to deliver higher accuracy in predicting job success. By immersing candidates in the same type of fast-paced environment they will experience on the job, you will see which candidates can effectively multitask—and which cannot. Imagine the impact on your organization if all your employees were top multitaskers!

These research-based tips underscore the challenge of effective multitasking in a fast-paced workplace. They also highlight the huge payoff of finding and retaining employees who can manage multiple tasks with speed, accuracy and finesse.

Joseph T. Sefcik, Jr., is the President of Employment Technologies, a pioneer and world’s leading developer of employment simulations for talent prediction. Their EASy Simulations® have won an unprecedented five-time national Top HR Product of the Year award. Contact them at EmploymentTechnologies.com or 877.382.3279.

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