Can an employee multicommunicate – simultaneously participating in a face-to-face meeting while checking emails, for example — and still be productive? The answer, research shows, depends on such factors as whether the employee initiated the second conversation, the different media being used (some are complementary, some are not), and the complexity of the conversation.
Technology that is supposed to make us more productive only seems to have complicated our task. We may be in an important meeting but know that whoever just sent an email is waiting for a response… and waiting impatiently. Is it possible to carry on multiple conversations and still be fully effective?
Research shows that when multicommunicating, productivity and comprehension does take a hit but not always. Through a series of pilot studies and a main study — involving multicommunicating with at least one technology-mediated conversation — researchers revealed the different factors that can increase or decrease the damage of multicommunicating:
The popular consensus, in the press and among the general public, is that multicommunicating is destroying productivity. By diving into this simple blanket statement and revealing the different factors that can lead to different outcomes, this research opens the door to possible solutions to help employees mitigate the negative effects of multicommunicating.
For example, organizations must train employees to limit the pace of switching, and to limit as well the complexity of the topics discussed when multicommunicating.
Employees should also be trained to use the communication channels that best fit multicommunicating. This includes channels that offer invisibility, and at least one of the two channels used in a multiple conversation must give the employees an opportunity to revise, correct or even delay an answer.
It’s clear that self-initiated multiple conversations are more controlled and effective than other-initiated multiple conversations. However, depending on the industry or function, most multiple conversations may be other-initiated (as in the service industry where employees are responding to customer contacts). Organizations should recognize the difference between employees that are required to be available, and those (for example, in a research function) where constant availability is not required. In the latter cases, the organization should ensure that constant availability is not expected; in the former cases, where employees are required to be available, every effort should be made to structure the media and communications to maximize productivity.
Finally, when training employees on technologies that allow multi-tasking, it should be emphasized that doing two things at once is not more productive if it leads to mistakes. This may seem obvious, but most people overestimate their multitasking and multicommunicating abilities.
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