The cost of context switching on employee engagement

Every time we switch tasks at work, there is a cost. Context switching can eat up as much as 40 percent of our productive time. To drive employee engagement, we must create space for more meaningful and focused work.

ARTICLE | 6m read
November 19, 2020

It’s easy to recognize this video’s context switching scenario. But while context switching is a common problem, it has serious implications. Beyond the obvious loss of productivity, too much task switching can prevent employees from focusing on meaningful work. If left unaddressed, too much context switching can hinder the innovation and employee engagement you need to ensure a successful future for your organization.

So how can we drive employee engagement in a complex, task-ridden world? By building a culture of digital wellness and being intentional about the relationship between people and work technology. As we face the real cost of context switching on employee engagement, we can create healthier space for employees to focus on meaningful work.

40%

Up to 40% of our productive time is lost to context switching every day.

American
Psychological Association

Why context switching is a challenge for employee productivity

Context switching is a real challenge because the demands of everyday work will always require task switching. Whether it’s routine tasks like catching up on emails, team-based tasks like participating in brainstorming meetings, or creative tasks like writing code, typical workdays include multiple contexts of work. There’s also a technology side to task switching, as the average business worker relies on more than nine different applications for everyday work, checks their email 74 times, and gets 46 notifications every day.

However, just because task switching is inevitable doesn’t make it healthy. Employees who experience frequent interruptions report a 9 percent higher exhaustion rate, and these conditions have likely worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic as work life and home life occupy the same physical spaces. Beyond hurting employee productivity, too much context switching can make employees feel like they aren’t accomplishing anything of value during the workday. As Gallup describes it: “People want purpose and meaning from their work. They want to be known for what makes them unique. This is what drives employee engagement.”

Recognizing the opportunity to transcend task switching

To transcend endless and exhausting task switching, we must help employees engage and find meaning in their work. The concept of “finding meaning in work” might sound like a fuzzy, hard-to-measure idea that’s best left for HR departments, but your employee engagement depends on your staff feeling a sense of purpose. What’s more, Gallup discovered that managers and team leaders account for a staggering 70 percent of the variance in team engagement. This is because managers play an important role in coaching employees, recognizing their contributions, and showing how their day-to-day work connects to the larger mission of their organization—in short, driving employee engagement.

The benefits of engaged employees go beyond happy feelings. Organizations with highly engaged employees have 147 percent higher earnings per share than their competition, and create engaged customers who return a share of wallet that is two to three times greater than customers who are simply satisfied. If purpose is indeed the top driver of engagement, then reducing the distraction and cognitive loss of task switching is crucial to your organization’s success.

 

Creating a culture of employee engagement over context switching

So how can managers help employees transcend endless task switching and find a sense of meaning? The answer is creating a culture of employee engagement that prioritizes digital wellness.

Begin by giving employees space to focus and innovate:

  • Reserve dedicated weekly times when no meetings can be scheduled, and employees are encouraged to turn off notifications for a few hours. This gives employees time for focused creative work in a single context.
  • Establish a structured meeting format that sticks to a planned agenda whenever employees formally meet. It’s also helpful to have a policy of not using laptops or phones during these meeting except for note taking and presenting, as this keeps everyone focused on collaboration instead of trying to sneak in multitasking.
  • Train employees on time management best practices based on common use cases or WFH norms—for example, being careful to avoid an overload of meetings that could be replaced with weekly emails.

There’s also a technology side to reducing task switching and encouraging employee engagement. When you adopt new technology, always ask how a tool can help support a culture of digital wellness:

  • Pay close attention to how new technology handles notifications and status updates. Too often, the platforms we rely on default to notifying us immediately in multiple ways whenever anything changes in our schedules, documents, or files. This can exacerbate context switching and hurt employees’ ability to focus.
  • Customize technology to batch notifications so they arrive at designated times. This gives employees more control over when they switch tasks.
  • Look for ways to automate routine tasks like expense approvals or meeting RSVPs. An intelligent digital workspace with these capabilities can enhance employee focus by letting machine learning handle potential interruptions.

 

Encourage employee engagement, not endless task

We can lead our employees to deeper engagement in a world dominated by task switching, but it will not happen by default. It’s up to us to be intentional about creating a culture that prioritizes focus and meaningful work instead of being distracted by the most recent notification. This not only increases employee productivity, but provides them space to innovate, imagine, and enable a better future for your entire organization.

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