Both types of people are enormously important and productive and I have no preference or bias toward either work type. In fact, I find myself to be continually vacillating from one to the other. I have days when I find myself jumping from task to task, seemingly working on many things at once. There are also times when I get in the zone working on a single task and can't seem to stop until that task is complete. Because I personally seem to vacillate between multi-tasking and single-tasking; I have learned the advantages and disadvantages of each.
Multi-taskers work well in situations
Where there are multiple tasks and conflicting priorities as to which one should be done first
Where the nature of the work requires starting new tasks before finalizing other tasks
Where all emails and phone calls must be immediately addressed even if the current task must be interrupted to do so
Multi-taskers tend not to be at their best in situations
Where they must remain focused on a single task they don't like for an extended length of time
Many interruptions occur but must be ignored until the task at hand is completed
Single-taskers work well in situations
Where they are required to concentrate on a single task and ignore conflicting priorities and interruptions
Where an extended length of time is required to correctly perform the task
Single-taskers tend not to be at their best in situations
Where multi-tasking is required
Where there are a large number of interruptions that must be addressed while working on a specific task
All that said, my suggestion to you as a manager is to ascertain the preferred work styles of your staff members. Some of them will be multi-taskers, some will be single-taskers, and some people, like me, can work in either mode based on the situation. Then, try to assign tasks to each team member that plays to their personal strength and work style.
This concept of assigning tasks may either be simple or nearly impossible based on the work your group performs and the makeup of your team. On the positive side, people generally know their strengths and weaknesses and will self select jobs and/or tasks that best fit their personal preferences and capabilities. On the downside, your mix of required department tasks, at any given time, may not match your team's makeup. When this happens, know your switch hitters, namely those who can multi or single task and have them even out the workload.
At the risk of forming stereotypes for which I truly apologize up front, on average, younger workers tend to be better multi-taskers than older workers, because younger workers grew up in a multi-tasking world. Older workers, of which I am including myself, grew up without email, the internet, cell phones, PCs, iPods, iPads, and even microwave ovens. In short, we had much less stuff to multi-task. As a result, multi-tasking is not as natural to me and my contemporaries as it is to my children's contemporaries. I have also read that women on average are better multi-taskers than men. This being said, I'm more of a multi-tasker by nature and my wife is primarily a single-tasker, so please take note that these are obviously generalities, not hard rules.
As odd as this whole multi/single tasking thing may sound, there is a fair amount of truth to this concept. As a manager, it should be just one of the many factors that you use when deciding what tasks to assign to each group member. After all, as managers, we want our team members to be successful. This is one more way you can help set up your staff members for success, not failure.
The primary advice and takeaways from today's column is to know that:
Ascertain the preferred work styles of your staff members and try to assign tasks to each team member that plays to their personal strength and work style.
If the mix of required department tasks does not match your team's makeup, use your switch hitters, namely those who can multi or single task and have them even out the workload.
Work style should be just one of the many factors that you use when deciding what tasks to assign to each group member.
This blog is an excerpt from my weekly nationally syndicated column with GateHouse News Service. My new columns can be found in GateHouse Media publications throughout the United States.
Until next time, manage well, manage smart, and continue to grow.