Nanette Fondas

Nanette Fondas

WorkLife Matters

Are Multi-Tasking Employees Present at Work?

The office is a distracting place.

Posted Mar 05, 2015

Touring college campuses with my son recently left me with one dominant impression: the student wired to headphones, smart phones, tablets, and computers. Hunched over food in a student union or over books in the library, walking or skateboarding through quads and towns, one behavior was ubiquitous: multi-tasking.

These are the up-and-coming members of the workforce, and according to a new survey, their modus operandi is starting to dominate the workplace: listening while doing something else, despite the imposition this makes on a person’s attention. As younger entrants to the labor force replace older generations, their habit of simultaneously listening, texting, talking, watching, and even reading is infiltrating the workplace.

Last week, the global management consulting company Accenture released a new survey of 3,600 professionals from 30 countries, spanning entry-level employees to top managers in small, medium, and large organizations. Approximately equal numbers of men and women responded to questions about their own and others’ behaviors in the workplace.

A whopping 96 percent of the survey’s respondents said they are good listeners, but almost two thirds said attentive listening is difficult in today’s office. Why? Interruptions such as telephone calls, unscheduled meetings, and co-workers spontaneously popping in. Wait, that’s part of office life, right? But such distractions prevent one out of every three people from doing their best work. The number of people who have difficulty listening and paying attention escalated when conference calls were factored in, in fact, 80 percent admit to multitasking on calls. 

Conference calls per se did not kill effective listening; rather, the temptation to get something else done while on calls was the true culprit. Business email was the favorite task to do while (sort of) listening to what people were saying on calls. Other distractions were instant messages, personal email, social media, and online news and entertainment. Millennials were the most distracted multi-taskers (64 percent), followed by Gen Xers (54 percent), and then Baby Boomers (49 percent). When did people turn off the mute button and turn up their level of presence? When asked to lead a call, participate, or follow-up on what a presenter said.

Presence versus productivity may well be the defining challenge of the 21st century workplace and the people who labor there. Maria Popova argues:

Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity. Ours is a culture that measures our worth as human beings by our efficiency, our earnings, our ability to perform this or that. The cult of productivity has its place, but worshipping at its altar daily robs us of the very capacity for joy and wonder that makes life worth living—for, as Annie Dillard memorably put it, “how we spend or days is, of course, how we spend our lives."

We spend a huge part of our days at work, so do we want that time to be dominated by digital, multi-tasking zombiehood, or do we want to exist and produce at the top of our human game? Again, Popova says such an ambition requires a recognition:

It’s hard to better capture something so fundamental yet so impatiently overlooked in our culture of immediacy . . . the flower doesn’t go from bud to blossom in one spritely burst and yet, as a culture, we’re disinterested in the tedium of the blossoming. But that’s where all the real magic unfolds in the making of one’s character and destiny.

Organizations are nothing but the people who inhabit them and who collaborate and create in them. The question is, as we move quickly toward the prevalence of a digital workplace and the always-wired, always-able-to-work person, do we want distracted, multi-tasking, listening-challenged, attention-scattered beings populating our organizations? Or would we prefer humans?