Multiple Software Applications: Lost Time Data-points Across Technology Silos.
White collar knowledge workers lose up to 40% productivity by switching between multiple software applications and multitasking, which leads to a cumulative corporate loss of $450 billion each year. Knowledge workers spend an average of 2.5 hours each day searching through apps for information they need to perform their work, which equates to a productivity loss of about 30%. Moreover, white collar workers spend up to 3.2 hours per day on work-related emails, meaning knowledge workers could end up losing as much as 71% productivity throughout the week. Although technology is designed to make work easier and more efficient, it is clear through multiple surveys that the opposite is true. Below is a deep dive of my findings.
Please note that although I attempted to find statistics for the United States only, the majority of the surveys were conducted globally. As such, all information is global unless otherwise noted. I searched through all surveys and none of them execpt Harmon.ie specified the geographical focus. For instance, the American Psychological Association study is likely U.S.-focused, but it doesn't specify the geography. The Harmon.ie survey is global, but provides significant insight into knowledge workers so it is an important study. The HubSpot survey did not specify a geography, but again, it offers important information required to answer the question.
Psychological studies have shown that while workers may feel more productive when they are multitasking, they are in fact forcing their “brains to constantly switch gears,” making it work “harder to do things at a lower level of quality, and exhausting [their] mental reserves.” Moreover, these same studies have shown that just “2% of the population is actually proficient at multitasking,” and despite the belief of most people that they belong to that 2%, the reality is they don’t. Instead, “recent research indicates that people who multitask the most often are likely the worst at it.”
What’s more is that switching from technology app to technology app may not even seem like multitasking. When workers are in the moment, switching from one task to another doesn’t feel like it takes very long. However, the small moments add up quickly. According to the American Psychological Association, “although switch costs may be relatively small, sometimes just a few tenths of a second per switch, they can add up to large amounts when people switch repeatedly back and forth between tasks. This, multitasking may seem efficient on the surface but may actually take more time in the end and involve more error.”
Research has shown that these switch costs add up to “as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time.” This equates to an average of 16 hours per week that are lost to task switching, including moving back and forth between workplace apps. To put it into dollar amounts, loss of worker productivity due to multitasking and switching between tasks can cost companies as much as $450 million per year. The loss of productivity due to multitasking boils down to the amount of time it takes to deal with the interruption and refocus back on the original task. An Inc. study showed that workers spend just 1 minute and 15 seconds on a task before being interrupted. Then, once interrupted, it takes them “an average of 25 minutes to resume a task after being interrupted.” As a result, it takes 50% longer to accomplish a single task and, perhaps even worse, the error rate is increased by 50% as well.
Companies only tend to be exacerbating the issue by continually adding apps designed to handle specific business functions. Unfortunately, most workers say that “between 1-5 of the tools they use have redundant capabilities.” So, not only are workers wasting time switching between tools, but they are also wasting time using tools that accomplish the same task. In fact, in a recent HubSpot Research survey, 31% of respondents said the most frustrating aspect of using many tools is switching between the tools and managing their passwords, while another 36% said they were most frustrated by the monitoring and maintaining of the different tools. In addition, 82% of the respondents said they lose up to an hour a day managing tools, which equates to five hours per work week of lost productivity just managing the various tools that have been provided to improve productivity. In a 50-week year (accounting for two weeks of vacation), this would equal a loss of 250 hours (50 x 5) of productivity annually.
Certainly, the 16 hours of lost productivity per week to multitasking indicated by the American Psychological Association is significantly more than the loss of productivity due to multiple tool management indicated by the HubSpot survey; however, it is important to note the HubSpot survey only analyzed the marketing and sales industry. Knowledge workers, who likely spend more time with software applications than marketers and salespeople, also spend more time switching between programs. In fact, recent IDC research found that “the knowledge worker spends about 2.5 hours per day, or roughly 30% of the workday, searching for information.” While not all 2.5 hours are attributable to switching between apps, given the digital nature of their occupation, we can infer that the majority of the loss of productivity is technology related.
As such, while workers in general are at a 40% productivity loss rate due to multitasking, and the sales and marketing industry is at a 13% (5 hours lost per week divided by 40 hours standard work week) productivity loss rate due to multiple tool management, the knowledge worker industry sits slightly on the higher side, at just over a 30% productivity loss rate as they search for information they need to perform their duties.
In addition to the problem of people all believing they are a part of the 2% of the population who are proficient at multitasking, there are other factors at play that contribute to the loss of white collar productivity. For instance a 2017 Harmon.ie study conducted on “The False Promise of the App Economy” discovered that the “average number of apps used by the modern knowledge worker is 9.39.” This number is even higher for IT workers, who report an average of 10.43 apps. Marketing professionals use fewer, with 8.4 apps on average. Even more telling is that workers have between 1 and 5 apps open at any one time, meaning they are also likely receiving notifications for these apps, which leads to interrupted work time.
While most of the apps white collar workers use are those issued by their IT departments, the Harmon.ie study found that 52% of workers admitted to adding their own apps to their computers in an effort to increase their own productivity. Apps like note-taking apps, project apps, and Dropbox are frequently mentioned as those added outside of IT authority. Despite the fact that many workers add their own apps and tools, 34% of respondents “somewhat agree that they have to switch between too many apps just to get basic work done, and 9% totally agree.” Even worse is that 35% of workers said they have to open multiple windows to find information. A minor, but not insignificant 7% said they have to “search through many applications and sometimes can’t find what they need.”
Much of the issue of lost productivity due to switching between software seems to center on disorganization. While just 3% of workers said they “regularly cannot perform routine tasks because information is too disorganized", 26% of the respondents said they wouldn’t be able to find a piece of work from 12 months earlier within five minutes and “14% said they would need much longer.” According the survey’s analysis, "this [data] should be of concern to organizations across the world. Digital transformation is geared towards making life easier for knowledge workers, and accessing documents is a large part of this. If 14% of employees are taking much longer than five minutes to find something as simple as an old draft of a document, this indicates the number of apps in use is a dampener on productivity."
EMAIL IS STILL THE BIGGEST CULPRIT
Even with the myriad of productivity apps available on the market today, email is still a primary means of communication. Statistics show that 4.3 billion people used email in 2017 and nearly 150,000 emails are sent each minute. Of the workers who have email, 80% of them look at their emails before arriving at the office, 30% check their email app while in bed, and 50% said they sneaked a peek at their emails while on vacation. On the job, though, it is clear that email is a productivity drain. In an August 2015 survey, which represents the most recent data available, “workers estimated that they spend 6.3 hours a day checking emails, with 3.2 hours devoted to work emails and 3.1 hours to personal emails.”
Again, this data is not specific to knowledge workers, but if we assume knowledge workers are on the high end of email usage (as indicated by the level of digitization of this industry), we can say that knowledge workers spend about 2.5 hours searching for information they need to do their jobs and another 3.2 hours devoted to work emails. This adds up to 5.7 hours (2.5 + 3.2) of tasks not directly related to their duties. In an 8-hour work day, this would mean that on average, a knowledge worker spends just 2.3 hours (8 – 5.7) on their assigned duties. Between email and searching for information, a knowledge worker could lose up to 71% productivity each week (5.7 x 5 = 28.5, 28.5 / 40 = 71%).
In general, white collar workers lose up to 40% in productivity per week on multitasking and app switching. Knowledge workers have a slightly lower loss of productivity at about 30%, but when email is added to the equation, knowledge workers could lose almost three-quarters of their time searching for information using various apps and tools and performing tasks not directly related to their specific job function.