Multiple-monitor arrays — once the ultimate signifier of tech-fueled productivity in Silicon Valley and trading desks on Wall Street — have become more common for everyday purposes that have nothing to do with coding or finance. Thanks to the increasing affordability and decreasing bulkiness of high-res displays, two, three or more screens have been taking over the desks of people both at work and at home. Couple that with the increased power of today's latest generation of PCs, and people are reimagining how to maximize their computer experience to be more effective and more efficient at whatever they do.
With everyone in the creative and information economy fully strapped with phones, tablets and laptops, there's no shortage of screens vying for our attention, promising to boost productivity while delivering only greater distraction. Rather than toggling between the second screens in their palms and laps, many people are opting to toggle with a glance among the second, third and fourth screens sitting side by side on their desks.
But can all those monitors actually make you more productive? Science suggests that it can, depending on what you're using them for and what you put on your growing virtual desktop.
Saving valuable seconds: Multiple screens became popular back in the post-Matrix, post-Web 1.0 early days thanks in large part to the flexibility of PC display monitors. PC monitors work with any PC operating system, so it became easy for employers to issue extra screens when needed without buying an entirely new hard drive and desktop setup for each employee.
The additional screens let data-heavy and programming-intensive jobs move much faster than when those tasks were confined to a single screen. In today's connected world, many employers prefer to issue laptop-and-monitor combinations instead of providing a single computer. This lets employees work remotely from home or when traveling while still providing more space for work in the office.
Having multiple screens at work can make it easier for employees to balance their work and personal lives with just one machine. As work and life become more intertwined, with constant email and instant messages from family, friends and co-workers, multiple screens could help disentangle those strands of one's life cohabitating on a single laptop.
In the past decade, manufacturers of PC monitors began to produce research promoting the benefits of multiple monitors, particularly the impact on productivity. A frequently cited 2008 study, funded by NEC Display Solutions but conducted independently by the University of Utah, put out hard numbers to back that up.
The study instructed participants to use PC monitors of varying sizes to complete basic editing and spreadsheet tasks with one, two and three screens. The results showed that using more than one screen can save people about 10 seconds for every five minutes on basic editing tasks alone. Not only did participants complete more work more quickly, they made fewer errors than when doing the same work on a single monitor.
Ten seconds for every five minutes may seem insignificant, but when you add those seconds up to 40 minutes a week and 35 hours a year, then factor in the number of employees in a given company, it adds up.
Staying on task: James A. Anderson, the communications professor at the University of Utah who led the research on the 2008 study, maintains that the findings still hold — he's a multiple-monitor user himself. But, he adds, "whether or not it provides the opportunity to increase your productivity really depends upon the kind of work you do."
"Putting multiple screens in front of somebody whose work only requires one screen isn't going to do anything for them," Anderson told Mic. "The work has to demand multiple screens. You have to be comfortable working in that environment, and, if those things come together, it will make a difference."
Working with more than one screen will save you time if you need to move quickly between two sets of information, whether that's for personal projects or work tasks. For example, data analysts can save time by looking at large spreadsheets on one screen and entering information on another. Programmers can code on one screen and watch its output on a second. And for any type of writing that involves research, typing on one screen while quickly referencing background material on another helps you avoid clicking between tabs every other sentence.
For Taylor Hurst, a global health consultant at the Advisory Board, multiple monitors make her daily tasks move much faster, even though she's not combing through large data sets or writing code. Hurst plugs her laptop into two large PC monitors and uses one screen to build PowerPoint decks while finding research on the opposite screen.
"My job entails a lot of slide drawing," Hurst told Mic. "It saves me a huge amount of time and frustration when I need to access multiple tabs or make extensive slide edits to work with two screens."
For Anderson, who analyzes and organizes large amounts of data, a 30-inch widescreen PC monitor can make a world of difference.
"I have a widescreen and two large portrait screens, but my work is doing data analysis, building tables and writing things that go along with that so you can see how three screens would allow me to do that," Anderson said.
More space, more clutter: If you aren't moving between two or more sets of information frequently, however, the extra space could just fill up with more distractions and interruptions, from the incessant yet unavoidable influx of email to the irresistible allure of Twitter feeds and instant messages from co-workers and friends. Instead of toggling between different elements of the same task, you're moving between entirely different tasks.
According to University of California at Irvine professor Gloria Mark, switching attention between different tasks is where a huge amount of time is lost at work.
"The more people switch their attention, the higher the frequency or the less duration percent on any computer screen, the less productive they are at the end of the day," Mark told Mic. "We know from many years of work there is a cost to re-orienting to a new task."
While two screens can allow employees to blend work and personal life more easily — even for small things like syncing text messages onto your computer or switching between personal and work email tabs — having the extra space to switch your attention quickly could hurt more than help. That cost of re-orienting to a new task can be as much as 23 minutes, which is how long it can take workers to refocus after being disrupted, according to Mark's own research.
"None of these technologies make you more productive," Anderson said. "They allow you to be more productive."
When it comes to technology and productivity — just like any superpower — with great power comes great responsibility. The speed and power of the next generation of PCs combined with more monitors has the potential to make anyone more productive, if they choose to wield that power correctly.