Posey's Tips & Tricks

Microsoft's 'Microtask' Vision: A Gray Area for IT

At first glance, Microsoft's proposal to fill employees' spare time with small tasks seems like a boon for workplace productivity. Don't be fooled, Brien warns.

I recently read a fascinating article on Microsoft's Web site called "Making 'Micromoments' Work for You." The basic idea is that there is a significant amount of time that gets wasted each day, and some of this wasted time can be reclaimed by performing microtasks, which are tasks that only take two or thee minutes to complete.

The idea behind focusing on microtasks is that some of your unproductive time can be reclaimed. If, for example, you spend five or six minutes waiting for a meeting to start, those few minutes could conceivably be spent completing a microtask while you wait.

The concept of using otherwise wasted time to get things done can be quite appealing, and it seems to fit well into an increasingly fragmented work day. Take this column, for example. Although I would much prefer to get it done in a single sitting, the odds of that happening are really slim. Coincidentally, just as I was typing that last sentence, the phone rang, forcing me to stop writing for a few minutes to deal with the person on the phone.

At any rate, it is becoming somewhat rare to have large, unscheduled blocks of time within which to work on large tasks, so it may make sense to focus on completing microtasks whenever you have a minute here or a minute there.

However, as much as I like the idea of being able to capitalize on "micromoments" and get small tasks done, there are several things about the concept that really bother me. I don't have a problem with stealing a few moments here and there, but a formalized approach to microtask management may be problematic.

The first problem with formalizing microtasks is that doing so can eat up any time savings that you may have gained. Let me give you an example. Yesterday, I spent a couple of hours pressure-washing my patio. Pressure-washing might be thought of as a single task, but the prep work could easily be broken down into several microtasks. These might include things like putting gas in the pressure washer, adding soap, attaching the hose or turning on the water.

All of those things are simple enough to do, but how much time would be wasted if you had to create a spreadsheet listing all of the various microtasks and the estimated amount of time required to complete each task? It would probably be faster to just do the jobs than to track every last one of its subcomponents.

And speaking of tracking, that's another huge potential disadvantage to a formalized microtask program. I can't help but think of one of the places where I used to work. The organization was a large insurance company, employing hundreds of people whose job was to walk customers through telephone-based enrollments. I worked in IT, so I never did telephone enrollments myself. Even so, based on what I observed, the job of enrolling people by phone initially seemed like it was a pretty low-stress gig. The employees would answer a call, walk the person through the enrollment process, answer any questions and then move on to the next call.

By the time I left the company several years later, that once-cushy gig had turned into a heart-attack job. Every aspect of the employee's performance was tracked. The organization looked at how many rings it took them to answer the phone, the average call duration, the number of keystrokes typed per minute and much more. On more than one occasion, I heard someone getting a tongue lashing because their performance didn't measure up.

In fact, the aggressive tracking led to an extremely high employee turnover rate.

Even if an organization opted not to track the completion of microtasks, I think that the mere existence of a microtask-based culture could lead people to experience feelings of guilt and anxiety anytime they are not busily chipping away at their list. I can just envision employees forgoing a quick trip to the restroom because those three minutes could be put to so much better use completing microtasks.

The human brain is just not designed to constantly be performing microtasks. The brain needs periods of rest. Those couple of minutes spent at the proverbial water cooler might not be productive in the strictest sense of the word, but they can help your brain rest and recharge a bit before delving into some other task.

I have no doubt that the people who wrote that Microsoft article put a tremendous amount of effort into all of their research. But while I do believe that it can sometimes be advantageous to multitask, or to get something done during time that would otherwise be wasted, I personally think that working for a company that formalizes microtasks would be an awful experience. 

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 16-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.

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