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Taken to Multitask

Doing several things at once is doing us in.

A serious debate has erupted in this country over whether talking on the phone, checking emails or sending text messages during corporate meetings is acceptable behavior. One camp, older and stodgier, says that multitasking of this nature is offensive. They also contend that true multitasking is impossible, that you can either drive the Hummer or close the deal, but not both. The other camp, which tends to be younger and more technologically savvy, fires back that corporate meetings are dull and predictable, and that discreetly interacting electronically during lulls in the presentation is a way of maximizing productivity.

The mounting problem— which smacks of generational warfare—was the subject of a recent New York Times essay by an academic who studies corporate “incivility.” Gathering data from more than 9,000U.S.managers, Christine Pearson, a professor of international business at the Thunderbird School of Global Management, says that perceived “incivility” is a growing problem that can have dire workplace consequences. For example,managers offended by a colleague answering emails at a meeting may take revenge by withholding important data or “forgetting” to include the offender’s name on the final version of a new product. One insult, it seems, deserves another.

An even bigger problem, though, is the slippery-slope component to the multitasking epidemic: that once it becomes acceptable to divide one’s attention in one way, it becomes acceptable to divide one’s attention in other ways. “I never minded some of the younger employees watching YouTube videos of Lady Gaga during the annual shareholders meeting,” says Bud Tillis, a senior executive at an Ozarks-based aviation firm. “It was the skeet shooting that got me. We’d be discussing a dip in fourth-quarter earnings and on the other side of the room you’d have the guys from finance firing out the back window at clay pigeons. When I’d tell them it was insulting to shareholders, they’d say, ‘Okay, we’ll switch to bows and arrows.’ They didn’t seem grasp the larger point.”

This sentiment is echoed by Faye Catando, human resources manager at a Baltimore hospital. “We made everyone leave their cell phones at the door, but these kids were so addicted to doing one thing while they were supposed to be doing another that they started playing canasta during open-heart surgery,” she says. “You can imagine how happy the patients were about that. Gradually, we realized that it isn’t messaging that’s so addictive. It’s multitasking.”

“We had the same problem with long-distance truckers,” says Purvis LaBute, who runs a fleet of 18- wheelers out of Laramie. “We installed jamming devices so they couldn’t text one another, and before we knew it, half the fleet had taken up macramé. They’d be barreling down the highway at 95 miles an hour and knitting a floppy sweater for Fido. It got so dangerous, we told them to go back to yammering on their cell phones while driving.”

Perhaps the most egregious example of socially unacceptable multitasking occurred recently when the stock market dropped 1,000 points in a matter of minutes, allegedly because an inattentive trader hit the “billions” button when he meant to hit “millions.”

“I lost $33 million in 12 minutes because some clown was texting his girlfriend when he should have had his eyes on the screen,” says a large, ill tempered Bronx-based investor who wishes to remain nameless. “When I find that guy, you can bet I won’t be checking my emails while I take my baseball bat to his legs. I’ll give him my full attention. Hey, I don’t want to insult the guy by multitasking.”

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