Workers in the digital era can sometimes feel if they are playing a video game, battling the barrage of emails and instant messages, juggling documents, websites and online calendars. To cope, people have become swift with the mouse, toggling among dozens of overlapping windows on a single monitor.

But there is a growing new tactic for countering the data assault: the addition of a second computer screen. Or a third. This proliferation of displays is the latest workplace upgrade, and it is responsible for the new look at companies and home offices—they are starting to resemble mission control.

Two’s company: A multi-monitor set-up helps cut down on toggling. (Priyanka Parashar/Mint)

Her centre screen shows what she is writing or editing, along with email and instant messages; the left and right monitors display news sites, blogs and Twitter feeds, and she keeps three to 10 tabs open on each. One monitor recently broke, and she felt hamstrung. “I don’t want to miss seeing something," Cohen says.

Her computer seemed to work a bit faster with one less monitor, she says. But her brain was a different matter. “I can handle it," she adds. “I’m sure there are people who can’t."

Certainly, more people are trying. Tech firms sold 179 million monitors worldwide last year and only 130 million desktop computers—meaning “more screens per desk," says Rhoda Alexander, who heads monitor and tablet research at IHS iSuppli, California. Monitors are bigger too. The average monitor sold worldwide is 21 inches, up from 18 inches five years ago, according to iSuppli.

NEC Display, a major supplier of monitors, says 30-40% of the employees of its corporate customers now use more than one monitor, up from 1% four years ago.

There are many reasons for the spike in sales: Monitors are much cheaper ($200-300, or 9,930-14,895, for a 24-inch display today compared with $700 five years ago); they are slimmer too, so desks can accommodate more of them; and there are more communication tools—instant messaging, Twitter, Facebook—that workers have to keep an eye on (or at least feel they should).

More and bigger screens can convey bragging rights too. Tech companies use them as recruiting tools, says Chuck Rossi, 45, who uses three monitors to toggle among dozens of tabs for his engineering job at Facebook, where he checks hundreds of software updates to the site each day before they become public.

“Companies will pitch it" to job candidates, Rossi says. “They know real estate is important. It shows they are serious about their engineers."

The main rationale for a multi-monitor set-up is that it increases productivity. But that notion is not simple to prove or measure, partly because it depends on the kind of work people do and whether they really need to be constantly looking at multiple data streams. Another theory holds that people have just grown so addicted to juggling that having more monitors simply creates a compulsion to check them.

One study, by the University of Utah, found that productivity among people working on editing tasks was higher with two monitors than with one. The study was financed with about $50,000 by NEC Display, which had hoped to find evidence that companies should buy more monitors to increase productivity.

The author of the study, James A. Anderson, a professor of communication, says he uses three monitors himself, but also says that it is hard to generalize about whether more monitors are better. At the very least, Anderson says, more monitors cut down on toggling time among windows on a single screen, which can save about 10 seconds for every 5 minutes of work. If you have more than one monitor, he says, “you don’t have to toggle back and forth. You can take in everything with the sweep of an eye."

Ian Blaine, 42, chief executive of thePlatform, a video software company in Seattle, uses two monitors himself and buys two for employees who want them. Blaine says the extra monitor can save time on toggling. “It’s probably milliseconds, but if you’re in the groove, it throws you off your game," Blaine says, then adds with a laugh, “Maybe I’m making that up and I’ve been duped into buying monitors because they want to look at the Internet while they’re doing work."

“But for now," he says, "I’m buying it."

© 2012 /The New York Times

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