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Could multitasking be choking employees’ performance?

Do you think multitasking makes you more productive? Think again. Scientific study says otherwise.

By GORETTI KIMANI

Labour has retained its place as the indispensable factor of production despite the 21st century organisations gravitating towards technology. Managers have to contend with the headache of human capital and talent management to maximise employees’ output while reducing the overall wage bill. The quest for exponential business growth and keeping ahead of competition has seen managers world over develop different ingenious formulas and systems including collapsing the age-old organograms. This is to create what they believe is a simple descriptive organisational structure to serve its interest and maintain market appeal from its customers and other stakeholders.

The astronomical costs of business operations have seen financial controllers and strategists quip businesses to employ efficient and effective utilisation of resources in order to both reduce costs while growing revenue. This is especially crucial if the organisation wishes to reward its workforce competitively to earn its place among industry peers. Indeed, today’s business managers have a basketful of ‘must dos’ to attain efficiency in employee management. They are expected to recruit and keep few employees yet achieve and surpass the financial goals of the company.

What is multitasking?

In the world of work, multitasking is the ability to undertake more than two different tasks at the same time during the stipulated work hours. Multitaskers are expected to attain the KPIs set up for each role efficiently and effectively. The 21st century business managers who wish to cut labour costs are now developing strategies where specialisation is constantly challenged and replaced with individuals who can take 2 or more roles. For example, today’s workplace has accountants who double up as administrators, human resource executives who also take up pay rolling, sales executives who are accounts managers as well as customer relationship executives, secretaries who are also Personal Assistants, receptionists, switchboard operators and customer cares.

Jugglers

Today’s managers are much focused in employing jugglers in the name of multitasking to optimise performance. Most businesses have evidenced elevated labour costs devoid of the expected profits, increased productions and competitiveness in their industry segments, thus a revolutionary approach in diversifying its human resource must be invented. A good juggler who can switch on and switch off from one task to the other is most preferred by today’s managers. Performing different unrelated duties in quick succession is no mean feat for any individual, genius or otherwise. Which is why jugglers are well remunerated and rewarded to keep their unusual excitement high. Indeed, a smart design for a juggler enhances employee productivity when the different tasks are not over-competing for attention. However, this is still tricky, and managers should ensure they train the employees on how to prioritise activities when multitasking to ensure that core and urgent activities are dealt with before embarking on other activities. Multitaskers flourish in environments where; a task does not need full attention of worker, the worker is trained on how to multitask to lower burnouts and fatigue, the worker’s brain capacity to alter cognitive processes and still maintain sanity is sound. An effective multitasker understands that it is possible to juggle and develop an impeccable attitude towards huge workloads submitting it within the set timelines and without major logistical mistakes.

Multitasking and employee efficiency

But does the employment of multitasking as a strategy to improve efficiency and effectiveness associated with ‘smart’ talent management or there are downsides? Scientists and researchers have casted a dark shadow on the clamour to hire jugglers. Their argument is that the human brain does not have the capacity to logically and rationally switch between different attention seeking activities. In extreme cases managers are likely to lower the intelligence quotient of their victims through choking and eroding their energies. For example, an individual who is great in numeracy activities may take a while before closing the numeracy brain faculty to tune to customer care.

According to Harold Pashler, a professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego in his book titled, “The Psychology Attention”, the widely assumed notions of processing resources in a human brain and automaticity are of limited value in understanding human information processing. Pashler’s research delved into the ability of the brain in undertaking different tasks at the same time either sequentially/serial task (one task at a time) or parallel (simultaneously) processes in multitasking. He notes that shifting between more parallel and more serial task processing critically depends on the conditions under which multiple tasks are performed. Therefore, managers who wish to reap big from jugglers need to understand that efficient multitasking is reflected by the ability of individuals to adjust multitasking performance to environmental demands by flexibly shifting between different processing strategies of multiple task-component scheduling. Without appropriate full-proof strategy coupled with constant review of both business performance and worker’s health, multitasking may become the curse of the 21st century fast-paced world. Therefore, managers ought to re-define the term ‘multitasking’, re-draft job descriptions and Key Performance Indicators for the betterment of the organisation while putting a human face to the workers.

Goretti Kimani is an author, trainer, full member of IHRM, KIM and the Women on Board Network (WOBN). Email: gorettikimani@gmail.com.

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