Monday, August 25, 2008

The Problem of Switch-Tasking

I thought this was a pretty interesting interview exposing the problems and pitfalls of multi-tasking in an office environment:

Lifehacker: Many mid-level employees today work in an open office layout without their own office or even cubicle—their desk is just out in the middle of the floor with everyone else's. When you work in this kind of setup, often you're expected to attend to interruptions as they happen. Co-workers stop by your desk to ask a question, you get pulled into a conversation happening two desks down, there's an culture of a quick turnaround on email messages and constant monitoring of the inbox... how can someone who's not an exec or in management reduce their switchtasking without looking like a slacker? Do you run the risk of looking less responsive?

Dave Crenshaw: The situations you are describing really are a huge drain on productivity. It is very difficult for someone in a middle-management or "front line" position to change that kind of environment. Ultimately, a business or an organization is a reflection of its leader. The leader has to make personal changes before an organization as a whole can improve productivity systems. If not, the leader will constantly undermine any systemic improvements.

I can offer a couple of suggestions. First: see if you can set up recurring meetings with the people who are interrupting you. In my experience working with people, establishing a recurring meeting at a set place and time is like magic, and it really does cut down on a huge number of interruptions very quickly.

Second: find a way the leadership of your organization to pay attention to the impact of switches in the workplace. A few people have commented that they are going to give the book as a gift to their boss because it presents the issue in a casual, non-threatening way.

Both of the suggestions are good ones, but aren't likely to catch on. For me scheduling meetings is always preferable to be interrupted because the conversation can be structured, and I'm not answering questions off the top of my head. I can avoid being reactive and giving knee-jerk response. I can prepare. I can understand what the topic is going to be. I can set goals and boundaries. I can decide on next steps.

Unfortunately, the current trend is toward "collaborative" workspaces where everyone is interrupting everyone else all the time in the name of being team players. If you're actually working, or trying to shut out the noise, you're considered too "heads-down." Too unresponsive. Too out-of-the-loop.

It's also cheaper (in terms of office space, furniture, etc.) and more convenient for the bosses to keep everyone available and at their beck and call.

The other problem is that the reputation of the "meeting" as an organizing principle has been so destroyed and damaged by 50 years of poor management, if you suggest one, everyone recoils in horror. Why would you want to have a meeting?

In my current work environment, not only can I not get anyone to set meetings, I can't get them to write specs, do requirements documents, or set guidelines for customer acceptance of deliverables. There's no process, no management, and therefore no way to improve productivity. And we bill by the hour! Everything is just ad-hoc and infinitely interruptible.