My husband has what I once assumed was a really intense home office setup. Two large monitors are supported by aluminum arms that position one screen directly in front of the user and the other to the right. At first, I was flabbergasted by the effort and expense: Does anyone actually need two huge, adjustable monitors for email, Google Docs, and video games?
As it turns out: Yes, they do. Multiple monitors actually make a positive difference when it comes to productivity.
I started to suspect this was true over the course of the past year, when I switched from working at various media companies and transitioned to freelance writing at home. It turns out there’s research to support my newfound discovery: For most office labor, employees benefit from multiple monitors, so if you — or even better, your employer — have a little extra cash and want to beef up productivity in a painless way, opening your wallet for an extra monitor or two is well worth it.
“If you have a lot of papers you’re working with on a project, would you rather work on a big conference table or an airline tray table?” says John Stasko, a professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology who has researched the effects of using multiple monitors. “I don’t know many people who’d trade their multi-mon setup and go back to a single monitor.”
“Would you rather work on a big conference table or an airline tray table?”
(“Multi-mon,” I’ve learned recently, is a phrase used by experts to refer to a “multiple-monitor” setup.)
This is what many respondents told me when I asked my extended Twitter network about their preferred monitor setups. “I find it reeeeeally odd now when I work remotely with my laptop and have to condense all my thoughts and tabs and apps back to one,” writes Becca Caddy, a technology journalist. “If I had the room, I’d even consider three.”
Alicia Hannah Naomi, a Melbourne-based contemporary jewelry designer, has had a similar experience. “I’ve never had the luxury until my current job where there were two monitors set up for me before I started, and I feel like a goddamn boss,” she writes. “It was weird but I adjusted VERY quickly. Now I can’t work on my single screen laptop at home properly.”
My own experience is similar. At my most recent office job, I had a large Apple monitor, which was considerably more luxurious than the small laptop screens I’d been accustomed to using. But it was nothing compared to my current situation, in which I work off two 27-inch monitors and, if I need it, my little MacBook Air as well.
“There were two monitors set up for me before I started, and I feel like a goddamn boss.”
These experiences are echoed in the scientific literature on the topic, which while scant, uniformly backs up the anecdotes presented here as far as I could find. A 2004 study looked at how performance compared when a worker used one monitor as opposed to two. It found that workers got started on work 6% more quickly, worked 16% faster, and had 33% fewer errors when using more than one screen.
Users also vastly preferred the use of multiple monitors — those with multiple monitors rated their experience 28% easier to focus and 24% more comfortable. Stasko’s 2008 research on the topic confirmed the earlier study’s findings, concluding that study subjects worked faster and much preferred multiple monitor over single monitor setups. Still another, a 2011 study (sponsored, to be clear, by Dell), reported that participants “were often observed to show disappointment (or groan!) when they were asked” to use a 17-inch single monitor configuration.
This enthusiasm for multiple monitors (and distaste for single monitors) was reflected in the responses I received after asking people how they prefer their work computer setups.
Chris, who works in finance in London, has an impressive and almost overwhelming desk. He uses three monitors which, he says, helps him work on projects that are complex and have multiple elements.
But most people don’t seem to be using their multiple monitors for as complicated of tasks as Chris. That extra screen is often reserved for chat apps like Slack or email, as several people, including user experience designer Maxim Leyzerovich, informed me.
Stasko says partitioning off tasks into multiple monitors helps save brainpower. “With one monitor, a person is often forced into ‘window churn,’ where they cycle through the applications they’re using,” he says. “So with multi-mon, less cognitive resources have to be devoted to window management.”
Theoretically, a large screen — say, double the size of a 13-inch Macbook Air like mine — would be enough without a user benefiting from another monitor. The worker could segment their screen, with a word document on the left side and Slack on the other. But as research from 2001 shows, people tend to use different screens to organize and partition their work. Second monitors are often used for “secondary activities,” such as email, social media, or Slack, or for adjacent activities or information. I, for example, don’t always use my second monitor. When I do, it’s typically either to keep an eye on my email or Twitter account, or to be able to refer frequently to a research document or story outline. Other people told me they will keep Spotify on their second monitor; some, like Maxim, watch movies while they work. All these activities are secondary to the main task at hand.
While two screens are typically better than one, regardless of size, there’s one significant situation in which a large, solitary screen is preferable: when that screen is really big. A 2009 study found that users preferred a 16-foot-wide, 6-foot-high display to single or double monitors 21 inches or smaller. Workers felt “surrounded” by their task, which they basically were, given that their Excel sheets and other work duties took up most of an entire wall. I’ve spent some time working on very large screens — a friend in high school had a computer hooked up to a large TV that was probably about 55 inches — and I personally found it somewhat overwhelming. That said, if I were made to work in front of it for five days like the users in the study, rather than intermittently using it to download movies, it’s possible I’d feel differently.
There are situations, of course, when one monitor is more than enough. Ann-Marie Alcantara, a reporter at Adweek, told me she prefers just her laptop when she needs to concentrate, because it’s “less space, so less prone to being distracted.” And Dave Gershgorn, my colleague at OneZero, says he primarily used an iPad to work at his previous job, because he was “able to focus better without so many apps open at the same time.”
A cluttered screen only creates more stress. With a cluttered single screen, people take longer to do their work, they make more errors, and perhaps counterintuitively, they have more trouble focusing. So I advise you to do what any good employee would do: send this story to your boss and explain to them why your current work setup is actually interfering with your productivity. You might end up with a pretty new 27-inch monitor on your desk by next week.