Office technology: Productivity boost or time sink?

Gadget-enabled multitasking is so addictive, it might actually be damaging the economy.

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It took 150 years for the industrial age to produce an adequate management science, he notes, and the knowledge economy is only a couple of decades old. Spira doesn't think it will take 150 years for a management science for knowledge work to arise, but he admits that he has no clue as to what it might look like.

Meanwhile, having been waylaid in their quest to value output, modern efficiency experts instead spend their time examining what office workers spend their time actually doing -- and assume that the output, whatever it is, amounts to productivity. But what they find is not always pretty.

The multitasking illusion

In particular, efficiency experts are alarmed by the effects of computer-enabled multitasking on office work and office workers. "I used to say that multitasking made a task take 15% longer. Now I say 50%," says Bary Sherman, head of PEP Productivity Solutions Inc., a Fallbrook, Calif.-based management consultancy that specializes in helping organizations become more efficient.

"Multitasking, as a term applied to people, did not exist before Microsoft Windows," points out Dave Crenshaw, a Saratoga Springs, Utah-based executive coach. But now, he says, "we use the term thinking we can multitask like computers."

The problem is that human multitasking involves interrupting one task with another. "We found in our research that something very interesting happens when I interrupt you," says Basex's Spira. "First there is the interruption itself, and then there is what we call the recovery time, which is the time it takes you to get back to where you were."

"We found that the recovery time is 10 to 20 times the length of the interruption," Spira continues. "The phone call that interrupted you may have lasted 30 seconds, but getting back to where you were may take five minutes."

By Spira's calculations, about 28% of an office worker's time is lost to interruptions and recovery time. Taking into account the size of the U.S. knowledge worker workforce (more than 65 million) and the average knowledge worker's salary (more than $21 per hour) and other data that's proprietary, he figures interruptions cost the U.S. about $900 billion per year, out of a gross domestic product of approximately $14.5 trillion.

In other words, interruptions stunt the economy by about one-sixteenth.

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