Human Task Switching is Horrible for ROI

Some people get it, some companies do, some other don’t, and it really goes to show on the company’s bottom line.  One can literally make major decisions about a company based upon what they expect from their employees in the way of task switching.  There are of course levels, but I’ll lay some descriptions out real quick for more context on what exactly I’m talking about.

Task-switching is when an employee literally stops one task to begin working on another task.  Rule out multi-tasking, that is a myth to begin with.  Task-switching is a part of everyone’s daily work.  The impact of task switching is directly related to the number of tasks.  I’ve created a quick little spreadsheet based on some of my research to show how exponential multiple tasks decrease worker productivity.  It is truly scary how fast someone can start producing nothing by trying to or being forced to attempt to produce too much!

So here is a quick “spreadsheet” run down of how quickly tasks will fall apart with the addition of more tasks.  With 7 tasks equating to the loss of diminishing returns and the fall into negative productivity.  Some of this loss, albeit not much, can be stemmed with effective and proactive management.  Basically take a percentage, of the percentage of time task switching, and effective management can remove that workload to decrease the task switching impact.

Other References for this Topic

Heavy Duty Scientific References

A No-no of Task Switching Items

  1. More than one “status report” a week.  Each additional status report added is a large % increase to the task switching effort.  Often times a written status report done a daily basis will have the reverse effect if done in a SCRUM type fashion.  But if the status report is too excessively detailed, even a weekly written status report, it often leads to de-motivation and a significant decrease in productivity.
  2. More than 15 minutes in a meeting.  As minutes are added, the return to work is exponentially more time consuming.
  3. No more than 2-3 meetings in a day.  Each one will increase the task switching time for returning to task efforts.
  4. Don’t make administrative staff do things they aren’t trained to and don’t turn developers and highly paid professionals into administrative staff.  Admin staff are for paperwork, developers are for developing, DBAs are for database administration, don’t get the titles into a spaghetti mess or the chart above becomes an extremely optimistic estimate in productivity loss.
  5. Management should also work diligently to keep the aforementioned “creative professional” interested in what they’re doing.  Work with them in this factor.  If you don’t, forget the 7 task maximum, think more around the 2 task is a red line limit.  They will get bored, they will lose productivity, and they’ll eventually leave or get fired.

For more elaboration on this topic definitely check out the two first blog entries I mentioned above from Joel on Software and Ero Billard.