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Research Brief: Juggling Multiple Conversations at Work

Instant messaging with a colleague while in a boardroom meeting with a client: Productive or problematic?

WHAT DID THE STUDY LOOK AT?

Emerging communication technologies and an increase in virtual communication allow employees to participate in multiple conversations at the same time, a phenomenon known as multicommunicating (MC). Researchers aren’t sure what to make of MC: on the one hand, employees may be more available to colleagues or more efficient by holding concurrent conversations. On the other, people have cognitive limits that make it difficult for them to perform two even simple tasks at the same time. This study looks at the performance-related outcomes of multicommunicating and the factors that influence these outcomes.

HOW WAS THE STUDY DESIGNED?

A series of pilot studies followed by a main study were carried out. The pilot studies were based on a web-based survey of 911 participants, mainly volunteers employed across a broad range of organizations. The main study required respondents to describe the details surrounding a recent incident at work in which they participated in two conversations at the same time (at least one via technology), as well as the resulting outcomes. Of the usable responses, approximately 25 percent of the MC episodes involved either instant messaging or email, and the rest involved at least one telephone or teleconference conversation.

WHAT DID THE STUDY FIND?

  • MC “intensity” — defined as the extent of multitasking at one time — was shaped by the pace, complexity, and topic of the conversations, as well as the type of communications used. 
  • Those who experienced higher MC intensity incidents reported greater process losses, such as missing a comment made by the other person or losing a train of thought. 
  • Engaging in MC with multiple social roles, such as speaking to a client and a family member at the same time, had no impact.
  • Participants who initiated the second conversation (rather than the second conversation starting as the result of an interruption) reported improved concentration and fewer errors while communicating.
  • Participants could sometimes leverage the second conversation to aid the first conversation, though the relationship was not particularly strong.

WHAT DO I NEED TO KNOW?

For many employees in high-pressure positions, multicommunicating may be unavoidable. For those employees who are required to be instantly available to a wide variety of people, organizations should formalize structures and training to maximize productivity. Employees themselves should learn how to capitalize on multicommunication's positive outcomes by: 

  • leveraging formal training with emerging technologies;
  • limiting the pace of switching and complexity of conversations;
  • using channels of communication that complement each other well, such as verbal-only communication (telephone) to initiate one conversation while using instant messaging in the other; 
  • initiating the second conversation to avoid disruption when possible; and
  •  avoiding multicommunicating, especially when the fall-out of making errors during the conversation is high.

Title: Multicommunicating: Juggling Multiple Conversations in the Workplace

Authors: Ann-Frances Cameron (HEC Montréal) and Jane Webster (Queen’s School of Business)

Published: Information Systems Research. Published online before print Nov. 8, 2012.

David Goldstein

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