I was talking to a colleague the other day whilst she also continued a long conversation on the company landline telephone and replied to an email on her laptop. After a minute or so, a WeChat message came in on her mobile and she looked up to answer a question I posed as she clicked away on her tiny keypad. I left her to her happy multitasking activities and went to my office to review some invoices as I texted a birthday wish to a friend.
At one time, doing something else whilst your manager was talking to you would have been regarded as operationally risky – let alone an act of insubordination. But today more and more people do such things as a matter of course and even do them on the move. Even before the era of instant digital communications it was possible to work in a non-standard way and “off-piste”. I remember writing a longish letter to The UK Times newspaper on a crowded London underground train using the back of a colleague as a rest for my writing pad. When I got into my office I asked my then Secretary (do you remember secretaries?) to type it up. Two days later it was published in the newspaper.
So, if we see our only revolutionary options as flexitime and part-time working or worry about “the right to turn off”, we are certainly missing a beat or two. It is great for staff to have a life outside work, but that is their personal business, whilst their time at work is primarily company business. Invasion of one by the other should be minimised, but what does it matter if someone needs to sort out a clown for their child’s party during working hours – if they do not let it impinge on their overall job and they continue to perform overall in an effective way? Colleagues do not need to hear about the clown hiring problem – at least not until after work at the local “hostelry” (English euphemism for bar).
Such methods of working cannot really be set down on paper, as they vary so much week to week, and also between individuals. There are those who can be trusted not to take advantage of life–work integration and those for whom it is seen as a licence to constantly play. How you sort them out is by having realistic and constantly evolving job goals. There needs to be deadlines in the system – some individual and some group. It is then a question of pacing themselves to reach the goals on time. Overshooting deadlines must always be without excuse and regular overshooting by individuals a basis for disciplinary censure. This is very much going back to old-style management by objectives (MBO), only the difference is that digital systems exist to track progress and modify objectives in real time.
The situation is, of course, going to get even more complex. What managers have always known is that the mind is a kind of dunghill. It takes time for ideas to rot down into something really rich and practical. What technology will therefore soon be doing is tracing thought processes that do not end up in conversation or in writing. These can then be sifted by AI-based systems to link up to known problem areas or topical decision- making activities. Many of the most talented individuals will then not be multitasking, but thinking/acting in the midst of the flux – or fluxitasking.