Multitasking has been under scientific scrutiny since the 1960’s. Diverse and web-centric channels for work and play have questioned the brain’s ability to do more than one thing at a time. MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller explains that, “When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.”

There is no better proof that multitasking – or, rather, the attempt to multitask – is alive and well than the contact center industry. If you spend any time peering over the cubicles of call center agents, moving between two or more computer screens, jotting down notes, and plugging digits into their calculator, you have to wonder, what’s all the fuss about? They seem to be multitasking whizzes! (Side note: In one Rapid Ethnographic study of a call center, SBR found that agents migrated between an average of two computer screens and seven different windows during a single call!)

When production value is prized above salesmanship or consumer engagement, the most effective call center agents have to become adept at managing multiple activities in quick succession. The problem is that most companies want call center agents to engage with consumers. The skills required to do so are inherently at odds with mechanical dexterity. You can easily determine whether agents are more focused on the computer than the consumer by the amount of “dead air” during a call. Such is the dilemma for the modern call center.

One big issue is that when people try to multitask, they make more mistakes. Worse yet, when agents switch between different activities, they could be losing the very skills needed to sell and/or support consumers. Researchers at the UK’s University of Sussex found that frequent multitaskers had less brain density in the areas that control cognition and emotional resilience. Sure, an agent might do okay for the first few minutes of their day, but they will soon get burned-out and bummed-out, lose focus, interest and overall job satisfaction. What to do?

  • Experience the agent environment firsthand. Automation can help, but should be built with and for the agent. Too often call center tools are created in a vacuum, often by technical geniuses that know little about or invest no time in appreciating the day-to-day work of a call center agent. An intimate understanding of the job starts with an immersive assessment (our method of choice is Rapid Ethnography) to get an inside look into the agent’s environment. At this point it’s possible to design technological solutions that can do more of the heavy lifting, so agents can focus on the caller.
  • Measure the impact of multitasking on performance. The attempt to multitask is a big time-waster. If you gauge the average amount of time wasted in searching around for information while on the phone you can quickly track the cost associated with multitasking, not to mention the impact it has on the consumer experience.
  • Give agents a chance to recharge. Psychology says that there is a limit to optimal performance and we all have a set point at which all goes south. The best breathers engage the creative part of our brains. If you have or manage a call center, consider a break station that includes games such as pool tables, adult coloring books (all the rage) and other “toys” that help agents switch gears. Even if you can’t set aside a large dedicated space, give agents portable care packages that they can take to the cafeteria.

The modern call center is a motley environment where human-centered communication, technological agility, and product knowledge converge to form the “ideal” agent. But humans are limited and for long-term agent retention and satisfaction, consider how you can create an ecosystem where performance is based on realistic factors. Folks on the receiving end of the call will thank you and so will your bottom line.