Close those tabs: Switching between applications ruins your productivity

Switching between programs on increasingly application-beleaguered desktops leads to a decline in productivity, mistakes, a new study says

Switching from email to Chrome to Word to WordPress and back again isn’t multitasking, it’s just torching your productivity and increasing the chance you’ll make a mistake, a new study finds.

The study from Pegasystems, a software company, analyzed nearly 5 million hours of desktop activity of British operational support employees of 35 global companies across 11 industries, who mostly perform back office (non-client-facing) work, data entry, or customer support center (also known as contact center) tasks.

Email wasn’t very helpful in getting work done for these particular types of workers. While “people use email to manage tasks, it doesn’t really contribute to production,” the study found. Nevertheless, workers checked their email 10 times an hour. While email was used during 12% of workers’ active work time, only 34% of that percentage contributed to production. Workers had a 22% error rate when working in email applications.

Longer hours, more mistakes

The study found that more mistakes were made the longer someone worked. People with longer shifts averaged 9% more mistakes than people with shorter shifts. Tuesdays are the days with the most mistakes because shifts tend to run longer on Tuesdays and Fridays.

More switching, more mistakes

The real enemy of worker’s time, stress level, and productivity was the number of applications they were expected to use, and the constant back-and-forth that using them required. The amount of toggling between applications that the average worker in this study performed was truly mind-boggling: they switched applications 1,100 times in a day, going between as many as 35 different applications in one shift.

Not surprisingly, workers using 30 different applications or more have a 28% high error rate than those using fewer programs.

With all these applications, workers often need to transfer data between them: they copy-and-paste 134 times a day.

In some industries at least, it seems that the desktop has become unnecessarily complicated. Management has followed a trend of becoming entranced by every new program bearing promises and bells and whistles; it’s hard to say what will reverse that and encourage them to scale back.

Sheila McClear|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at smcclear@theladders.com.