How Multiple Monitors Affects Productivity and Wellbeing

Technology makes work mobile, but for many users, small portable screens can’t replace desktop displays. Software engineers, architects, designers and professionals in many industries, from banking and finance to education, engineering and healthcare, rely on the immersive experience of multiple monitors in their daily work.

But are multiple monitors (two to six screens) best configured and adjusted? Our extensive primary and secondary research answered these and other questions:

What are the benefits of multiple monitors?

Less is not always more. For many tasks, multiple monitors offer definite advantages over a single screen. However, the ability to arrange monitors and easily control their position greatly affects productivity, comfort and wellbeing.

Dual monitor productivity - the research

According to research, multiple screens can dramatically boost productivity. One of the first indicators was a landmark study1 by researchers at the University of Utah. The researchers found that multiple screens were “significantly more usable than single screens on measures of effectiveness, comfort, learning ease, time to productivity, mistake recovery” and other factors. For example, users found multi-screen configurations:

  • More comfortable
  • More productive
  • Easier to track tasks
98% of users preferred a dual monitor configurator to a single monitor.

Subsequent research since the Utah study has shown similarly impressive results. Microsoft researchers found that switching to multiple monitor configurations could boost productivity between 9 percent and 50 percent2. Tech consultant Jon Peddie Research reported that users of multiple monitors estimated productivity gains averaging 42 percent3.

In a report to the Human Factors and Ergonomic Society,4 researchers at Wichita State University found that multiple monitors helped boost performance, regardless of screen size. Users reported dual monitors were measurably more efficient and less frustrating than a single monitor. Perhaps most notable, nearly all of the study participants—98 percent— preferred a dual monitor configuration.

The research findings are not surprising, considering that additional monitors allow users to:

  • Display more content (more windows, and in larger sizes)
  • Use more applications simultaneously, and switch between them more quickly
  • View multiple windows without moving windows front to back, resizing, etc.
  • View documents side by side, cutting and pasting, etc.

In short, multiple monitors provide significantly more screen real estate and more work process options, thus more user control. As Steelcase research has pointed out, choice and control are essential to user engagement and satisfaction. Or, as the Wichita State University researchers noted, user satisfaction with dual monitor configurations was “important because it is well-documented that higher satisfaction often is related to higher productivity.”5

Steelcase qualitative studies support findings

To explore this issue at the user level, Steelcase teamed with renowned design firm IDEO to conduct primary research on monitor use and work processes. They identified two primary work processes involving multiple monitors: active applications and passive applications6.

An active application involves a multiscreen environment where the user is very active and engaged with different applications. Data sharing between screens is constant: comparing information, cutting and pasting, and working with content to create new ideas and information. This application requires a great degree of adjustability for focal length, screen tilt and height. Video editors and designers are just two of many jobs that involve active applications.

Ensure you have the power to adjust

In both the passive and active applications, monitor placement and adjustment affect user comfort and productivity. The research found that multiple monitors should:

  • “Move as one” to accommodate different postures and workstyles
  • Have full “functional focal adjustment” to accommodate differences in visual capabilities and preferences
  • Provide a variety of configuration possibilities to support changing work processes and workstyles7

New technology is supporting new work-styles

Technology has changed work postures and workstyles. In a separate research effort, the Steelcase Global Posture Study8 revealed nine new postures driven by how users engage with new technology. Several of these new postures can be seen with users at multiple monitor configurations, including:

  • Take-It-In—A posture common among users of multiple monitors. Here the user reclines, “taking in” all of the arrayed content.
  • Trance—This posture results when people are deep in concentration and tend to ignore how they’re sitting.
  • Multi-Device—A posture seen where users are blending the use of several devices to perform their work, a common activity in business today.

Think about the wider setting

Since multiple monitor workspaces often involve focused work for long periods, important space considerations include effective ergonomic seating, height adjustable work surfaces, and an adjustable monitor arm that allows user adjustment of monitors for proper focal length, tilt and height. Greater ergonomic support and better user comfort help boost employee engagement and well-being.9

What about ultrawide screens (UW)?

In addition to the traditional multi-monitor setups, ultrawide (UW) monitors are emerging as a useful technology in various professional fields. These expansive displays (34 inch+) can offer a unique blend of the benefits of multiple monitors without the need for maintaining and powering multiple physical screens.

A 2023 study10 by researchers from the University of Akansas, found that:

  • For certain 'take it in' tasks, ultrawide monitors can offer similar or even superior performance benefits compared to multiple monitors. This is particularly true for tasks that need a wide, uninterrupted visual field - like examining architectural plans.
  • Ultrawide monitors may reduce the need for excessive neck rotation compared to traditional dual-monitor setups, potentially increasing comfort during prolonged use.
  • While ultrawide monitors offer significant advantages for some, the research found that they were not helpful for everyone.  Some working disciplines still benefited from multiple screens, rather than one UW screen.

A smart investment

Multiple monitor configurations are still growing in popularity: they’re beneficial not only for nurses with multiple patient monitors or security guards monitoring widespread real estate.  Research shows they are of real benefit to many different kinds of admin and knowledge workers, too.

Instead of having to switch between full-screen windows, a second screen lets the user keep open a spreadsheet or web page for easy access to content. In an organisation where prompt replies to email and texts are expected, a second screen for an email programme can facilitate quick responses. 

These screen setups can help workers shift focus when required in a more disciplined way while helping them return to the previous 'open' task more seamlessly.

Handling multiple monitors in the home-office

But in the world of hybrid working, organising multiple monitors effectively in the home office can add additional challenges. Investing in flexible stands and arms to lift monitors off small desks and unclutter working surfaces, becomes even more important. This article on homeworking by Samsung offers constructive advice for those working with limited space:

“When space is tight — if the workstation is wedged into a bedroom corner, for example — ‘daisy chaining’ can allow monitors to be set in a V side-by-side, or even stacked. With in-plane switching (IPS) panel technology providing 178-degree viewing, monitors positioned off to the side can still display everything with easy, crystal-clear viewing.”

Home-workers should ensure they are collaborating with their employers to ensure domestic set-ups, including their seating choices, can make their screen work as comfortable as possible.

Multiple monitors are cost effective 

Monitor prices are coming down— Samsung reports that a 22-inch monitor costs half as much as it did five years ago —while screen resolution, readability and colour continue to improve.

Multiple monitor displays are more cost effective than ever. When monitors can be precisely placed and adjusted by the user, they benefit individual users and the organisation through increased productivity, comfort and well-being.

The Destination Office

REFERENCES

  1. “Productivity and Multi-Screen Computer Displays,” Colvin, Tobler & Anderson; Rocky Mountain Communication Review vol. 2:1, Summer 2004, pages 31-53
  2. “The Large-Display User Experience,” by George Robertson, Mary Czerwinski, et al, 2005, Microsoft Research
  3. “The Multiple Display Market and Consumer Attitudes,” Jon Peddie Research, June 1, 2009, jonpeddie.com
  4. “Examination of Dual vs. Single Monitor Use during Common Office Tasks,” by Justin. W. Owens, Jennifer Teves, et al; Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting, September 2012, vol. 56, no. 1, 1506-1510
  5. “Are Two Monitors Better than One?” by J. W. Owens, J. Teves, et al, August 23, 2012, Software Usability Research Laboratory, Wichita State University, usabilitynews.org
  6. Design development research conducted by IDEO, Palo Alto, CA, and Steelcase, Grand Rapids, MI, 2007
  7. IDEO and Steelcase
  8. Steelcase Global Posture Study, 2013
  9. “Second Screens: The Benefits of Multiple Monitors,” by Michael Halloran, August 2015,
  10. "Examining Potential User Experience Trade-Offs Between Common Computer Display Configurations. " Burruss CC, Bjornsen E, Gallagher 2023 May;65(3):482-494. doi: 10.1177/00187208211018344. Epub 2021 May 19. PMID: 34011186.
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