How Does Multitasking Affect Performance?

Photo by Paul Morgan.

A roof keeps rain off our heads, and walls and doors circumvent the wind and cold. There are universal, fundamental components of architecture and provisions for shelter, but how do contemporary design practices shelter employees from chaotic elements in today's business environment? In a majority of today’s workplace design, corporate companies lean towards smaller footprints and open office plans where the concept of benching for focused work has become popular.

We are also exposed to increased noise and visual distractions in our collaborative working environments, as corporate industry trends toward less private space, and more open gathering areas. Meetings previously held in private offices are moved to shared meeting spaces, often in small- and medium-sized conference rooms, or “focus” rooms. As a result of this design choice, one of the most prevalent complaints regarding today’s office design is that people want an office with a door, not an open desk.  Some employees are more easily distracted in the noisier environment that is the open office area.

In these environments, overhearing a neighbor's phone conversation or listening to a colleague's meeting is also a form of information sharing and team communication.  Employees are continually plugged in: Mobile technology tethers them to email and voice messages regardless of whether they are in a meeting, have stepped out to lunch, or are taking a vacation. We all walk a tightrope between the comfort and convenience of being constantly connected, and the obligation to be just a phone call away.

CEC Collins College by IA Interior Architects. Photo by Michael David Rose/MDRP.


The digital nature of our society has far-reaching effects, reflected even in the way that university students perform in top institutions such as MIT and Stanford.  Professors are teaching in a radically different environment compared to the classroom of years past, one where students sit fenced behind rows of laptop screens.  Ostensibly, the laptops are there for students to take notes during lecture but the reality is that today’s college students are often multi-tasking. They see no problem with “listening” to the lecture while searching the Internet, playing online games, chatting with friends, or watching videos.  When questioned, young multi-taskers express full confidence in their ability to divide focus without detriment to their comprehension of the material.  After all, they have lived their lives studying while listening to music and chatting with friends.  It is their natural state of being.

Or is it?  Contrary to self-evaluation, when placed in a clinical environment and tested for concentration, memory and analytical thinking, multi-taskers’ performance is significantly lower while multi-tasking than performing single-focused tasks.

We know that a healthy body needs nourishment and exercise to flourish.  What about a healthy mind?  Humans need ways to refresh and replenish mental resources, to let the mind flourish as well.  Contemplation may be an answer.


IA is a global firm of architects, designers, strategists, and specialists. We focus exclusively on environments through the lens of interior architecture—a radical idea in 1984, when IA was founded. We are highly connected agents of change, committed to creativity, innovation, growth, and community.