• 9 in every 10 jobs now involves multitasking
  • Just 33% of us have developed strategies to cope with demands of multitasking
  • Gender split: 74% of female respondents think women are better at multitasking than men while only 5% of males respondents think men are better at multitasking than women (and none of the women thought men were better than women)

As the demands of technology and social media in the workplace multiply, multitasking is becoming a bigger part of people’s jobs, according to new research from global recruiter Randstad.

In a poll of 2,025 British adults, 45% of respondents said they have to deal with more multitasking in their working lives than they did two or three years ago, compared to just 16% who said they have to deal with less (the rest said it was unchanged).

The research also found that multitasking is now a requirement of almost nine in every ten jobs. Roughly one-tenth (11%) of respondents said their job did not require any multitasking while almost nine-tenths (89%) said it was part of their role. Jobs in Edinburgh, Glasgow and London were most likely to involve multitasking, while Cardiff and Sheffield were the least likely.

The problem is that there’s a price to be paid for the growing number of interruptions employees face. According to a University of California-Irvine study, regaining our initial momentum following an interruption takes, on average, more than 20 minutes.

THE SOLUTION TO THE PROBLEMS ASSOCIATED WITH MULTITASKING

Randstad suggests two solutions to the problem. Highflying employees who want to maintain their productivity can change their environment to move temptation further away – shutting down emails, closing Twitter and Facebook, and silencing phones. And they can cluster similar activities together, keeping the transitional ramp-up time to a minimum. Instead of scattering phone calls, meetings, administrative work, and emails throughout the day, they can try grouping related tasks so there are fewer transitions between them.

Mark Bull, CEO of Randstad UK said: “Going off-grid for half an hour will boost your productivity – it’s easier to concentrate when you’re not continuously fending off mental cravings to check your phone or have a look at your Twitter feed. Alternatively, you can read reports, articles and other documents one after another. Book in meetings back-to-back. And, if possible, try limiting email to two or three set times instead of responding to them the moment they arrive. Of course, that still won’t stop colleagues interrupting you – but it’s a start.”

At present, few people are taking advantage of tactics like these. When Randstad asked employees if they ever change their environment to move the temptation to multitask further away, just 33% said yes (see Table 2).

Mark Bull said: “Highflying A-players who are busy being successful will have figured out not only how to deal with the demands multitasking makes on their day but how to demonstrate that to potential employers in job interviews. Employers know how prevalent multitasking is and it frequently comes up in interviews and even job descriptions – 12% of the financial services jobs we’re recruiting for even highlight the importance of multitasking in the job specification .  The best way to convince an interviewer you are a great multitasker is to demonstrate that you are alive to the consequences and that you have developed sensible strategies to deal with the consequences of living in a multitasking world.”

Given that those people interviewed as part of Randstad’s research reported being interrupted six times every day, and that only 33% of employees are using strategies to manage multitasking interruptions, the majority of employees are losing 120 minutes per day – or ten hours every week – to multitasking.

With 22.76 million people currently working full-time in the United Kingdom , working approximately 253 days a year , the country’s permanent work force is now losing over 1bn working days’ worth of productivity every year as a result of multitasking.

Mark Bull said: “Multitasking is becoming an increasingly important part of people’s working lives – 70% of employers tell us they regard it as important. That’s a problem because we all pay a cognitive price when we multitask – we deplete our mental energy every time we jump from one activity to another – and that price is soaring as multitasking becomes more prevalent in the workplace. The consequences are surprisingly serious when you take into account the amount of time it takes us to regain our flow following another interruption.”

IMPACT ON EFFECTIVE IQ


An experiment conducted at the University of London found we lose the equivalent of 10 IQ points when we allow our work to be interrupted by seemingly benign distractions . But when asked if they thought they paid a cognitive price when they had to drop everything and rapidly and switch between activities, only 37% of the people who responded to the poll, commissioned by Randstad, said they did.  And when they were asked to estimate how many IQ points they lost, they underestimated the effect by 50%, with the average answer being just 5 IQ points.

Mark Bull said: “Employees are underestimating the damage multitasking can do to their productivity. If they saw how it impaired their IQ and how much time they were losing when 

(1) 49 Financial Services roles out of 423 in UK as of 13th August 2015: https://www.randstad.co.uk/jobs/s-financial-services/ 
(2) http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/lms/labour-market-statistics/august-2015/statistical-bulletin.html 
(3) http://www.work-day.co.uk/workingdays_holidays_2015.htm 
(4) http://edition.cnn.com/2005/WORLD/europe/04/22/text.iq/ 

they drop everything and switch activities and had to restart tasks, people would be more likely to look for, and adopt, solutions – especially in top-end job markets like Edinburgh, Glasgow, and London where the demands are largest. The problem is employees don’t necessarily appreciate how hard multitasking can degrade their clarity of thought – its makes heavy demands on us.”

Randstad’s research also found that just 23% of respondents did not enjoy it – with 19% saying they don’t like it and 4% saying they hated it.

When asked if their colleagues appreciated how much multitasking was involved in their roles, only 41% of respondents to the survey said they felt their co-workers understood the amount of multitasking their job entails.

GENDER DIVIDE

There is some disparity between the sexes as to who are the best multitaskers.  More than four-fifths (83%) of people claim they are better than average at multitasking, with only 17% saying they are worse than average. Nine-tenths (90%) of women say they are good at multitasking while only 75% of men say the same. And although one-sixth (16%) of men claim to be very good at multitasking, Randstad found the figure for women is more than a quarter (28%).

There was also a gender divide when it came to perceptions of multitasking ability.  

While 38% of males interviewed thought men and women were equally good at multitasking, just 13% of women felt the same. Almost three-quarters (74%) of female respondents said they thought women were better at multitasking than men compared to just 38% of male respondents. And while 5% of males interviewed said men were better at multitasking than women – none of the women interviewed said they felt the same way.

Mark Bull said, “83% of people think they are better-than-average multitaskers – they can’t all be right. The results also show that, far from being a myth, the perception that women are better multitaskers than men is a fairly universally held belief.”

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PRESS CONTACTS
Tora Turton, Instinctif Partners, tora.turton@instinctif.com, 020 7427 1445 / 078 1554 1607