In many ways productivity has long been a unicorn of business and management research. It is difficult to define, harder to measure and almost impossible to standardise. Even though we cannot say with much precision what productivity is exactly, we do know some of the cognitive components that are necessary for productivity to occur; attention being one of the most important. Brains have limited capacity, similar to bandwidth for communication technologies. This means that we have to select what we “spend” our attention on. This leads to two major types of division: multi-tasking and task-switching.
Task-switching should be familiar to everyone in the modern workplace, by effect if not by name. This is what you are doing when you stop writing to read an email or break off from building a presentation to prepare for the next meeting. You are probably aware of the annoyance of not being able to finish off one task before starting another, but what is often hidden is the cognitive cost of switching between different tasks. When we switch tasks, there is a cognitive interference effect caused by the switchover from one task to another. This is greater the more different the tasks, so switching from coding to giving a presentation incurs greater costs than switching from one type of writing to another type of writing would.
Through this switching we are losing significant amounts of useful time. One study found that typical office workers react to most of their emails within 6 seconds of a notification and then on average resumed work after 64 seconds. In total, email caused around 96 interruptions over a typical 8 hour work day, causing 1.5 hours of time spent re-orientating. That much time spent working in a sub-optimal way multiplied across all employees can make a significant difference to efficiency and therefore profit.
Further research has found that when people are diverted from a task, they tend to spend around 25 minutes on other tasks before returning to their original task. Since this is an average figure, a significant amount of people will be taking even more time than this to get back to their original task. All of the time spent being distracted is a form of productivity loss because people are being distracted from their core jobs by things like emails and meetings. While these are of course necessary, in most cases they are not what you are actually paying people for and that is what you really need them to be doing.
What can I do about it?
In order to cut down on time lost to task-switching, ensure that communication channels are used in ways that match their strengths. In many ways emails are a digital equivalent of letters, but they are sometimes treated as instant messages or texts and given more attention as a result. Check emails at regular points during the day and work offline for the rest of the time. Deal with emails as a separate activity rather than being constantly interrupted. If something is urgent, IMs and phone calls can still interrupt people to draw their attention.
Another important facet of cutting down on distractions is meetings. Like emails, some meetings are important, but not all of them. Meetings with too many people and those with people who have nothing to gain or contribute can often easily be reduced with little effort. Also meetings can be scheduled in certain time periods to avoid people having to break off from activities; for example only scheduling meetings in afternoons unless absolutely necessary.
Every company is different and will have varying degrees of task-switching costs are these depend on the tasks being undertaken, their diversity and the people doing them. But what is clear is that these can be a significant productivity cost for companies and in the constant strive to be better, this is a cost that companies should be aware of when considering how to improve productivity. Rather than becoming stricter with employees through targets and threats, instead work to understand how humans work and build processes around them to get the best out of them.