Are you worried that you can’t multitask like today’s employers expect? Perhaps you get many projects completed, but you don’t do them all at the exact same time. The term “multitasking” has become a catchall for getting more done in less time, and further exploring this topic is why my colleagues and I conducted this research that appears in Human Communication Research in January 2012. The ideas for this study originated several years ago when I realized that my students (primarily juniors and seniors), were really worried about how jobs were being advertised and described. It is very common for the actual job ad to say they want a “multitasker.” My students would come to me privately and speak openly in class about their fear that employers thought they were technology experts and they were not. Furthermore, many of them did not enjoy what they perceived as the pressure they feel when others push them to work fast and juggle many projects and conversations. Now don’t get me wrong, I always have a few students who claim that they get an adrenaline rush from seeing how many chat or IM windows they can have open simultaneously while talking on the phone and updating Facebook and Twitter. But many of my students do not desire this highly externally-focused deliberately overstimulated environment. They might text constantly (even during class), but when they stop and think about how they prefer to work, it is different.
This study provides evidence that ‘juggling many projects in a sequence’ can also be considered multitasking. The pace might appear slower, but I’d like to see more research on which type of multitasker (simultaneous or sequential) is actually more productive over time. Our research found that millennials (people born between 1980 and 1995) perceive work environments to be faster paced and have an increased workload when those companies expect multiple tasks to be completed at the same time—simultaneously as opposed to allowing work tasks to be completed sequentially. These multitasking distinctions also influence people’s perceptions of how much they will need to be available outside of work hours. These findings support other claims that millennials are more aware of how their work and personal life blend, but in this study, women had a more nuanced view (they could tell differences between simultaneous, sequential, and monochonic cultures) than men of how organizational multitasking cultures could influence the expectations for availability outside of work.
I’d like to thank my students who have helped me realize that we needed a way to measure these different types of multitaskers. I am also grateful for the help of my co-authors, Dr. Jaehee Cho now at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Dr. Dawna Ballard, a communication and time scholar at UT Austin.