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Column: Is a technology overload making us less efficient at work?

Email, smartphones and tablets help us multi-task, writes Professor Gloria Mark, but can they also make us less productive?

Gloria Mark

This week the Dublin Web Summit has been hearing contributions from entrepreneurs and thinkers on how technology may alter our lives in the future.

However, Professor Gloria Mark of the University of California believes there may be a cost to the increasing role of technology in the workplace. She writes:

ONE OF THE  most popular questions I get asked is – “Are women better multitaskers than men?” The answer is – yes. Research has shown that women are better at maintaining continuity in their work in the following ways – they find it harder to get interrupted than men do and when they are interrupted they return to their tasks quicker than men do. Women are better at multitasking.

Why, is always the next question. Women have had to be. They are better at this because of they have practice of multitasking with family, home and work commitments. At the end of the day they have to pick up the kids, get meals ready and due to these factors they probably have had to be more efficient as they have a lot of tasks to do.

While women may be better at multitasking, everyone has to do some form of it in a modern-day office environment.

Technology

We have benefited a lot from technology – we can type faster, find out information faster. There is no question it has had its advantages. But it has brought the temptation to be distracted more, so really it is a double-edged sword.

With computers, there is more temptation to switch tasks more often. So if you are working on a word document, Google can get you straight to your email – and suddenly you are doing two tasks.

The office 100 years ago was a very different place. The work that went on there was actually done with different devices. So if you wanted to do a calculation you had to go to an adding machine, and if you wanted to type you had to use a typewriter. It was physically harder to change activities. With computing, it is all in the same box.

No one has actually looked at the big picture to see whether the influx in these new devices – like the iPhone – make us more efficient or if perhaps the old ways worked best.

I conducted a study where we cut off email in a workplace for five days. We found that people actually multitasked less – as in, they switched their tasks less frequently and spent longer time periods focusing on individual tasks. We had the workers wear heart rate monitors and we found that their stress also went down.

Cognitive switching

If you spend a longer period of time thinking and focusing on a task rather than switching back and forth then that is better, because when you switch it is a cognitive switch – and it brings with it a cognitive cost.

I don’t think this kind of research is being utilised. But I think for planning information technology in a work place it needs to be looked at.

Following the study, we recommended batching email, which means instead of continual emailing you send it out once in the morning and once after lunch. The way people email now increases peoples’ expectations – as in people are constantly checking it to see who has replied and that can increase stress levels. If you only send it out twice a day then you will know that the reason people haven’t replied to your email is because you haven’t sent it yet, so it is a way to create more sanity in the organisation level.

We are caught between two eras. On the one hand we are living through the proliferation of all these new devices, and we can hardly keep up with these developments. On the other, as users of these devices we still haven’t found a way to successfully integrate them into our lives. We can find our information fragmented across a number of devices. We can do better – we need to make technological design match efficient usage patterns.

My feeling is that we have gone too far. In terms of technology in work practices there have been downfalls. I think it is always better to meet face to face. In the study everyone reported how rewarding and important it was to have these face to face interactions and they said they found this was missing when they were just using their email to do business. It is so easy to just send an email but there is something to be said for the old ways of doing business.

We shouldn’t go overboard, we should still try and maintain face to face interactions.

Gloria Mark is a Professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine.  Her principle research areas are in human-computer interaction and computer-supported cooperative work. Her current projects include studying multi-tasking of information workers, IT use for resilience in disrupted environments, and Big Data analytics.

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Gloria Mark

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