I walked into one of my favorite coffee shops recently and immediately noticed how busy it was. Nearly every seat was filled, and there were a few people waiting for their orders near the counter. As I approached the register, a barista was pouring an enormous bag of beans into the grinder. Another was barbacking, shuffling left and right to carry dishes and wipe surfaces. A third employee, dressed differently to show that he was the manager, was fiddling with two pour-over stands.
I waited quietly, watching the flurry of activity. The barista loading the grinder spotted me out of the corner of her eye and said, loud enough for the others to hear, “Hi. We’ll be right with you.”
That got the manager’s attention, and he turned away from his pour-overs to face the iPad that ran the register app. “What can I get you today?”
He was still looking at the pour-over stands, so I replied, “I’m in no rush. Take your time with what you’re doing.”
“Oh no, it’s fine. I can multitask,” he said.
So I placed my order. He punched in the drink, still not looking at me, and paused to ask me to repeat my food order. When he swiveled the iPad to face me so I could pay, he took the opportunity to turn back to the pour-overs. I swiped my card, punched in a tip, and watched the app crash. “Looks like the payment didn’t go through,” I said.
“Don’t worry about it. I’m sure it went through,” he replied.
Multitasking seems like a core competency for almost any job, yet humans aren’t designed for it.
“Really?” I said. “It never said the payment was accepted before crashing.”
He opened the app and checked the ledger. No payment. Apologizing, he took my card to charge me. This entire time, he hadn’t been looking at me. He handed my card back, plopped my cookie onto a plate, and chirped a detached “thank you.” As I picked up the dish, he turned to the espresso machine and started playing with it. I shuffled off to find a table.
Ten minutes later, the tea I’d ordered had yet to appear so I approached the register again. The manager was still brewing espresso and trying to listen to a customer’s order at the same time. Seeing me, he turned away from the other customer to ask if I needed anything.
“Has that tea finished steeping yet?” I asked.
His face formed that look we all get when we don’t remember something we know we should have. He strode to the bar where the completed orders are placed and scanned it, finding no teapots. On his way back to me, he glanced at the espresso orders and called for a barista to finish filling them. When he reached me, he apologized again and asked which tea I’d ordered.
I got my tea a few minutes later, delivered right to my table, with a free drink token resting on top of the pot.