A Digital Transformation Challenge: Context Switching

Splitting the attention of your IT team between business-critical IT projects and “keeping the lights on” greatly reduces your team’s productivity and increases stress. On top of that, it also potentially distracts from digital transformation efforts.

This habit of moving between tasks and projects is referred to as context switching, a form of multitasking. Context switching causes the brain to reorient itself to the current task at hand and that process can take on average 23 minutes and 15 seconds. Imagine a team member who has gotten into the flow of solving a complex IT problem and is unexpectedly interrupted by a new system request. What is the cost to the organization for that interruption?

In Gerald Weinberg’s book, Quality Software Management: Systems Thinking he proposes that adding just one additional project or task per day causes a 20% reduction in productivity.

The Cost of Context Switching

IT teams that are scrambling between different projects and tasks are losing valuable time. Not only are IT resources costly, but finding good IT resources is difficult. Wasting IT staff’s time due to context switching is an expensive drain on IT productivity - and potentially pulls resources away from digital transformation efforts. And, as the chart above indicates, the more variability in work an individual has the more time is lost.

To make matters worse, context switching also has high psychological costs including stress, frustration and feelings of being overwhelmed. A team that is working long hours but not meeting deadlines or finishing their “to do” list will have less job satisfaction and may become demoralized. However, IT teams have to “keep the lights on” while completing critical projects. It isn’t possible to completely eliminate context switching but organizing a team’s workload and offloading unnecessary tasks can help. Here are 3 steps to take:

  1. Organize your team into specialists. This can be a good solution for large teams that have consistently large volumes of work in all areas but may not work as well for small teams whose work is more cyclical.

  2. If your team is small and stretched thin, an IT partner may be able to take on more routine cyclical work that normally interrupts business-critical projects.

  3. Create a predictable work schedule for your team where individuals can expect interruptions in certain weeks but will be given time to focus on long term projects in others This is not easy to do but having some reprieve from interruptions may be better than none.

As an IT leader you’re responsible for ensuring all work is completed. Being mindful of how interruptions are affecting your team and organizing their days more intentionally can help you minimize stress, increase productivity, and meet project deadlines.

Read our other blog posts in this series on IT teams here.