What's the last day you spent without interacting with a computer? Increasingly a rarity, computers have encroached on every aspect of our work and personal lives.

Next month's CHI 2016 Conference, taking place in San Jose, Calif. on May 7-12 will dive deep into how these interactions will change in the future. 

We've already looked at how computers will engage many of our senses. But productivity — hindrances and enhancers — also cropped up in a number of the studies, uncovering new insights into how people are dealing (or not dealing) with email, with task interruptions and distractions, and with multitasking demands in the workplace.

Here are just a few of the many research projects that gauge our ability to deal with the onslaught of technology and still get work done:


Despite the numerous eulogies for email, email is not going anywhere soon. In fact, it will become more entrenched as next generation email tools emerge that include machine learning capabilities to help us focus on what’s important. 

Here are some of the recent findings about how we are coping with email:

Email Duration, Batching and Self-interruption: Patterns of Email Use on Productivity and Stress

Email retrieval patterns impact workplace productivity and stress. The researchers found the more time spent on email, the lower the perceived productivity and the higher the measured stress. 

People who primarily check email through self-interruptions report higher productivity with longer email duration compared to those who rely on notifications. Batching email (i.e. checking email infrequently) is associated with higher-rated productivity with longer email duration. But despite widespread claims, the study found no evidence that batching email leads to lower stress. 

Finding Email in a Multi-Account, Multi-Device World

Email is far from dead. 

The volume of messages exchanged daily, the number of accounts per user and the number of devices on which email is accessed have been constantly growing. This paper examines how people manage personal and work email. 

Unsurprisingly, the study turned up differences: work accounts are more structured and thus email is retrieved through folders, personal accounts have fewer folders and users rely primarily on the built-in search option. Moreover, retrieval occurs primarily on laptops and PCs compared to smartphones. The study concludes with recommendations for new design possibilities for email clients to better support how email is used.

Interruptions, Distractions and Multitasking

Interruptions and distractions continue to plague the workplace by killing productivity and causing stress. Here are some of the most recent findings.

'Silence Your Phones': Smartphone Notifications Increase Inattention and Hyperactivity Symptoms

Should you turn your phone notifications off when working? This study explores levels of inattention and hyperactivity when smartphone notifications are left on or turned off in the workplace. Notifications drive higher levels of inattention, which in turn, lowers productivity. 

Learning Opportunities

My Phone and Me: Understanding People's Receptivity to Mobile Notifications

Are all smartphone notifications created equal? 

Response to smartphone notifications can be influenced by presentation, alert type, sender-recipient relationship as well as the type, completion level and complexity of the task in which the user is engaged. The study established the role of an individual’s psychological traits on the response time and the disruption perceived from a notification.

Technology at the Table: Attitudes about Mobile Phone Use at Mealtimes

Can you please pass me the bowl of … smartphones? This study examined attitudes about mobile phone use at meals, which has become a source for tension in many families. It found that attitudes differ depending on the particular phone activity and on who at the meal is engaged in that activity, children versus adults. 

The three major factors impacting attitudes are: one’s own mobile phone use, age and whether a child is present at the meal. 

Take 5: Work-Breaks, Productivity and Opportunities for Personal Informatics for Knowledge Workers

Give me a break? This paper extends research on productivity in the workplace to consider the break habits of knowledge workers and explore opportunities of break logging for personal informatics, offering an understanding of the benefit workers desire when they take breaks, and presenting insights into the effect of work breaks on productivity, as well as recommendations.

'Don’t Waste My Time’: Use of Time Information Improves Focus

Maintaining focus when using a computer is a major challenge. This study introduces a time awareness application to shows users how they are using their computing time. The study found that increased awareness about which applications people were using does not affect how much time they continue to use those applications. 

Neurotics Can't Focus: An in situ Study of Online Multitasking in the Workplace

Are you prone to be distracted? Multitasking might be influenced by individual factors, specifically personality, stress and sleep according to this study. Stress and sleep duration showed trends to be inversely associated with online focus. 

The results suggest that there is a "trait for distractibility" where some individuals are more susceptible to online attention shifting in the workplace.

Check out the rest of the conference papers here.

Title image "Juggling" (CC BY-SA 2.0) by  Shabai Liu 

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