Although it is contrary to the core economic principle of the division of labour, requiring an employee to multitask between a number of job duties is an efficient way to cut costs of hiring additional labour units, which is a significant input cost for an organization. For this reason, it is likely that an increasing number of public and private companies will expect their employees to undertake multiple roles and be individually multi-skilled within the organization. One of the research agendas within our project “Delivering Better For Less” will focus on how multitasking work environment affects productivity and motivation within organizations and under which conditions employees are more likely to multitask more effectively.
It is worthwhile to ask whether multitasking is indeed cost efficient and productivity increasing for an organization and more satisfactory and motivating for employees. The opinions vary on this matter. Popular job advice institutions praise multiple responsibility jobs as being less mundane, more vibrant and more educational. In the scientific literature, Agypt & Rubin (2012) find that polychronic individuals report higher job satisfaction in organizations that require its employees to work on multiple tasks at the same time or interchangeably and on tasks that require multiple skill sets.
Another opinion is that the multiple tasks that a worker engages in complement each other and hence productivity increases across all tasks. Take for example, a corporate sales person who has the multiple responsibility of developing, pricing and selling a product. The sales person’s presence in the market may provide them with greater insight into how to develop the product and determine a better pricing strategies. Hoppe and Kusterer (2011) develop a theoretical model and experimentally test multitasking incentives when the tasks are either complements or substitutes. They show that when tasks are complements, a principal is better off employing one agent, and; better off employing multiple agents for each task when tasks are substitutes and/or conflicting.
Contrary opinion states that multitasking is counterproductive as it decreases the efficiency that division of labour brings about and distracts a person from getting engulfed in one single task. The popular book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Covey (1989) and organizational scientists Madjar and Shalley (2008) argue that refocusing attention from one task to another decreases productivity and it is the constant focus on one task that brings upon more creative and innovative work.
The recent work by cognitive scientists Wetherell and Carter (2014) has shown that having to juggle multiple tasks adds to the stress level of people in the work environment. In a more controlled lab experiment, Buser and Peter (2012) show that simultaneous multitasking rather than sequential single tasking decreases overall productivity and performance. Now, contrary to the sales person example, consider an academic who is in the middle of writing up the paper to submit to a journal. Most academics will agree that they are the most productive if uninterrupted by other tasks such as teaching and administrative duties. Indeed Salvucci and Bogunovich (2010) showed that if given a choice, people prefer to multitask when they are not in the middle of a cognitively loaded task and prefer to mono-task when they are performing an intensive task. Using a sample of Italian judges who have a highly cognitive work, Coviello, Ichino & Persico (2010) show that those judges who are induced, for exogenous reasons, to work on many trials at the same time, take longer to complete similar portfolios of cases.
While the question of whether multitasking is productivity enhancing or not is still an open question in the literature, in practice, more and more organizations expect employees to multitask within a single role. The literature has an abundant number of theoretical studies, for example by Corneo & Rob (2003), Egglestone (2005), Gautier & Wauthy (2007), on how to motivate and incentivize multitasking. Instruments like socialization in a work place, using mixed payment incentive schemes and competition have been theoretically shown to increase productivity in multitasking work environments. There are only a small number of empirical studies that show the effect of multitasking on performance. For example, Schultz, Schreyoegg, & Reitzenstein (2013) look at the surgeons’ performance across research and operational activities and show that better access to internal resources encourage higher level of multitasking whereas access to external resources only improve research activity.
Consider an academic who is required to multitask between teaching and research. Depending on the academic, they may derive more intrinsic motivation either from teaching (lecturing and interacting with students) or research (coming up with novel research questions and writing papers). The universities prefer that academics put high amount of effort on both teaching and research and do well in both. This of course creates a polarization of interests between the employer and employee that has been referred to as a “multitask problem” (Holmstrom & Milgrom 1991). For example, Gautier & Wauthy (2007) assume that academics prefer research to teaching because, research output is more easily appropriable and brings more prestige than teaching output and research can be recognized as a productivity signal across the institutions whereas teaching is evaluated mostly within an institution. Their theoretical results suggest that multi-department universities and competition between the departments can induce better teaching quality and research if departments compete in their number of student enrolment and satisfaction to fund research across departments.
Another example of the recent work to investigate whether multitasking can be enhanced with monitoring and inspections is by Al-Ubaydli, Andersen, Gneezy & List (2012). In a field experiment, workers were hired to complete an envelope stacking task. Varying the piece-rates and fixed-payment employers were able to signal their ability to monitor workers which increased both the number of envelopes stacked and decreased the number of errors.
Although the recent spark of interest in multitasking incentives has produced a number of interesting findings and insights, there is still an extensive gap in the literature to explore the empirical and behavioural sides of multitasking incentives and motivations to multitask.
As part of our research project, we will look at the extent of behavioural and motivational spillovers between tasks in a multitask setting. We will be asking how to motivate employees to multitask when an employee prefers one task more than the others. Besides personal preferences and tastes, one task may be more rewarding than the other and hence an employee maybe more motivated to exert effort toward the more rewarding task.
I look forward to sharing our findings with you in due course and would encourage empiricists and behaviouralists to contribute to this strand of literature and develop new methodologies to demonstrate a variety of applications of theoretically proven tools on how to improve productivity and motivation in multitasking work environment.
Update: now you can see our discussion paper "Incentives and Gender in Multitask Stetting: an Experimental Study with Real Effort Tasks"
Agypt, B., & Rubin, B. A. (2012). Time in the new economy: The impact of the interaction of individual and structural temporalities on job satisfaction. Journal of Management Studies, 49(2), 403-428.
Al-Ubaydli, O., Andersen, S., Gneezy, U., & List, J. A. (2014). Carrots that look like sticks: Toward an understanding of multitasking incentive schemes. Southern Economic Journal.
Buser, T., & Peter, N. (2012). Multitasking. Experimental Economics, 15(4), 641-655.
Covey, S. R. (1989). The 7 habits of highly effective people. Simon & Shuster UK Ltd.
Coviello, D., Ichino, A., & Persico, N. (2014). Time allocation and task juggling. The American Economic Review, 104(2), 609-623.
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Eggleston, K. (2005). Multitasking and mixed systems for provider payment. Journal of health economics, 24(1), 211-223.
Gautier, A., & Wauthy, X. (2007). “Teaching versus research: A multi-tasking approach to multi-department universities”. European Economic Review, 51(2), 273-295.
Holmstrom, B., & Milgrom, P. (1991). “Multitask principal-agent analyses: Incentive contracts, asset ownership, and job design”. Journal of Law, Economics, & Organization, 24-52.
Hoppe, E. I., & Kusterer, D. J. (2011). Conflicting tasks and moral hazard: Theory and experimental evidence. European Economic Review, 55(8), 1094-1108.
Madjar, N., & Shalley, C. E. (2008). “Multiple tasks' and multiple goals' effect on creativity: Forced incubation or just a distraction?”. Journal of Management.
Salvucci, D. D., & Bogunovich, P. (2010, April). Multitasking and monotasking: the effects of mental workload on deferred task interruptions. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on human factors in computing systems (pp. 85-88). ACM.
Schultz, C., Schreyoegg, J., & von Reitzenstein, C. (2013). The moderating role of internal and external resources on the performance effect of multitasking: evidence from the R&D performance of surgeons. Research Policy, 42(8), 1356-1365.
Wetherell, M. A., & Carter, K. (2014). The multitasking framework: The effects of increasing workload on acute psychobiological stress reactivity. Stress and Health, 30(2), 103-109.