How much time and energy are we wasting switching between apps?


How many times do you think you switch between apps during your day? For digital workers, switching between applications has become an unavoidable part of the job – hitting Alt-Tab is as natural as breathing.

It’s not hard to see how we got here. As business needs evolve, new applications are introduced to meet them, and CIOs and managers struggle to retire old ones and reduce numbers. In large organizations, there can be thousands of applications, and smaller ones regularly have dozens or even hundreds. As a result, employees spend their days constantly switching back and forth.

Let’s take the example of a Fortune 500 consumer goods organization that we studied. To execute a single supply chain transaction, each person involved switched approximately 350 times between 22 different applications and unique websites. On an average day, that meant a single employee would switch between apps and windows more than 3,600 times. It’s a lot.

This type of changeover is often dismissed as simply “how we work now”, even though it is also taxing on people and a waste of time, effort and focus. Yet these trends are likely to continue or worsen in an increasingly digital and remote world of work. This should give businesses pause. The cost of this way of working may be more than they realize, and if they recognize it, they may be able to find a better way of working.

The tipping tax

When a user switches from one application to another, it is not just the simple physical act of pressing keys to switch that costs effort. It takes time to adapt to the app, its semantic context and its purpose after a change – users need to get their bearings, even if they were just looking at it. For example, when moving from an email to a spreadsheet, the two interfaces, layouts, and purposes are very different. Before you’re ready to continue with the task you’ve changed, it takes a moment to quickly adjust to the spreadsheet.

This readjustment has consequences. Psychology and neuroscience have shown that jumping from one task to another – also called “context switching” – is cognitively taxing. We find that even switching or toggling between two applications is equivalent to a context switch. Excessive rocking increases the brain’s production of cortisol (the main stress hormone), slows us down and makes it harder to concentrate.

What we wanted to measure is: how much time and energy is wasted when you add up all those moments?

Using a work graph – software that reveals how teams interact with applications to get their jobs done – we performed a baseline measurement of the cognitive effort cost of switching. To do this, we studied 20 teams, totaling 137 users, across three Fortune 500 companies for up to five weeks, for a dataset of 3,200 workdays. Most of these teams were in middle or back-office roles in finance, human resources, supply chain, recruiting, inventory management, and more. Looking at this data, we measured how much extra time it took for a user to move to the next step in their task after the switchover – how long it took them to reorient themselves and figure out what they needed do next.

We found that, on average, the cost of a switch is just over two seconds, and the average user of the dataset switches between different apps and websites nearly 1,200 times a day. That means people in those jobs were spending just under four hours a week reorienting themselves after switching to a new app. Over the course of a year, this represents five weeks of work, or 9% of their annual working time.

The cost of doing business

Is this really a problem or is it just the cost of doing business in a digital environment? To shed light on this, we also took a closer look at how people worked and measured the time spent between two successive toggles.

We found that after 65% of changes, users switched to another app less than 11 seconds later. In other words, the time spent on an application is not significantly greater than the fee paid to switch to it. The result is that users are constantly asked to refocus and their attention span is fragmented, leading to burnout. This state of distraction usually occurs due to poor job design and a plethora of applications. Basically, the way we work is itself a distraction.

For most employees, there’s no obvious way to get around the ping-pong between documents, websites, and apps — it’s just the way the job should be done. Most enterprise applications weren’t designed to connect to each other, which means users act as a “swivel chair,” fetching and transforming data from multiple applications, then submitting it to other users. other systems. An important part of their job is to act as glue between disparate applications. This is a common working pattern in almost every organization in the world, regardless of industry or size. The processes and tasks that people perform are designed to span multiple applications and therefore the very nature of today’s work requires such constant switching.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Managers and leaders can — and should — take steps to improve the situation.

What managers can do

Of course, we’re not saying that all rockers are bad. It is implausible to create a global enterprise application. But there are several lessons managers can draw from these findings.

Throwing people at the problem is not a solution.

Sure, it’s possible to hire people to act as glue between disparate IT applications, but that only obscures the fact that fragmented IT applications are the root cause and increases the cost of not fixing it. Today, the way work is designed inherently causes people to pay the tipping tax, lose focus, and get distracted. If you choose to solve this problem by adding more people, take into account that they suffer from a bad experience at work, which also affects their productivity.

Look for places where the design of the work is causing friction.

A proxy for finding hotspots where the tipping fee is high is to find teams that work with multiple apps. For these teams, it’s like investing in improving work design and reducing the app footprint will streamline their work experience.

Rebalance workloads.

People engaged in work where they constantly switch between applications are more likely to be bored and distracted. Therefore, they are likely candidates for job attrition or disengagement. No one really wants a job where all they do all day is just repeatedly switching between disparate apps. Consider load balancing these working models across the team.

What leaders can do

C-suite members have even more power to make changes. It’s important for them to recognize that employees can no longer be aggregated and broken down into a handful of employee personas – proxies that companies use as surrogates for large groups of employees when designing work and systems. . Instead, customize the design of modern apps for all users in the organization rather than a select few power users (as is the case today). Specifically:

Rationalize the cost of introducing new applications into the landscape.

Approve releases with real hands-on users (instead of the few designated power users) at every stage of software development. For example, a Fortune 500 retail pharmacy chain introduced a web-based pharmacy adjudication system to replace an old central system – only to find that most of their busy pharmacists were so used to the interface and to the mainframe response time they didn’t care for a much cleaner web interface. Speed ​​and reliability were more important to them.

Lead with user orientation and user experience.

Ideal apps are designed to be transparent, encourage users to focus, and minimize the tipping over of taxes and digital distractions. To design such applications, task your User Orientation (UC) and User Experience (UX) teams to lead the design of new processes and systems and to include the multitude of user personas rather than a few in their design process.

Invest in building and maintaining a work graph.

Consumer brand companies are investing millions of dollars to chart consumer longitudinal journeys and consumer graphs with millions of specific data points on how consumers act, interact across channels, apps and physical environments . They then spend hundreds of millions of dollars pushing the right messages and interactions, nudges towards a seamless shopping experience.

Leaders can learn from them to do the same for their people – their most productive assets. Every employee has millions of touchpoints and deserves the same personalization and attention. We urgently need to build the longitudinal employee journey for all businesses – the work graph to be precise – that unlocks unique insights and enables continuous digital problem solving. For example, the integration of purchase order approvals on Outlook emails was not included in the first version of most procurement software, but it is now a standard feature. The ideal situation is to make weekly or monthly improvements. A work chart would help find and fix problems faster.

NR Narayana Murthy, the founder of Infosys, once said, “Our assets go out every night. We have to make sure they come back the next morning.

In an era of high attrition, it’s critical that leaders prioritize improving the employee experience as much as they care about growth, customer experience, and profit. The tipping tax is an example of the need for empathy for how people experience work. Such empathy, backed by data from the work chart, is likely to scale and be the best bet for the most important assets to come back the next morning.


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