In essence, work has always been about solving other people’s problems, and the human race has always been developing tools to do this more efficiently. Digitalization is just one phase in this progression and, as such, there is nothing novel about it, says brain researcher Katri Saarikivi.
Originally, psychologist Katri Saarikivi was interested in working life and workplaces rather than research. However, the question of how the human emerges from brain matter inspired her to follow an academic career path. Saarikivi leads the NEMO research team in the Cognitive Brain Research Unit at the University of Helsinki. This team researches empathy and high-quality interaction, and how they can be enhanced in digital environments.
“In addition to research work, we cooperate with work organizations in finding ways to benefit - in a digital environment - from the latest findings on human behavior,” says Saarikivi.
Saarikivi is also a member of the steering group of Aalto EE's Digital Business Network.
The transformation of work is being widely discussed, but research does not support all of the commonly presented views. Let’s hear from Saarikivi about why this is the case.
1. Digitalization radically reduces the amount of work
According to Saarikivi, work is problem-solving, and more specifically, human problem-solving. Work exists because other people have problem that need to be solved. For this reason, as long as humans persist on this planet, work is an enduring phenomenon in society and will never end: when one problem is solved, four more appear. Curiosity and the desire to develop are also integral to humankind. This results in constant changes in working, i.e. changes in the ways and methods that people employ in order to solve the problems that lie at the core of work.
If you want to be relevant in working life, it’s probably smart to focus on developing your skills in areas where machines still struggle.”
“Throughout history, humans have built tools to conserve energy, save time or to extend beyond current limitations in capabilities. Digitalization is part of this continuum of tool creation. Of course, new tools are now being implemented at a rapid rate, often in the area of cognition. However, this does not mean that work will disappear, but that how people use their own brains as part of intelligent problem solving changes.”
For Saarikivi, work in which machines outperform humans, such as repetitive tasks and easy problem solving, should be outsourced to machines. What remains are areas where humans still outperform machines: creative thinking, flexible and contextual thinking, the ability to learn, and the ability to interact, i.e. empathy.
“If you want to be relevant in working life, it’s probably smart to focus on developing your skills in areas where machines still struggle. In general, understanding the needs and problems of other people will result in better work. The best case scenario with digitalization is that it will free time for people to focus on the tasks where humans excel, the tasks we often feel are most challenging, but also motivating, and valuable.”
2. People can no longer manage the huge flow of information
Digitalization has multiplied the amount of information available. Information is available in real time and around the clock via various media. Many people think that this information overflow overstrains the brain and hampers efficiency at work.
“Current tools such as smart devices are good and addictive, and people enjoy using them. People who complain about information overflow should realize that it is not a problem of controlling information – problems are caused because they cannot control themselves. As for whether the use of social media should be limited – yes, you should if it causes problems for you. There can be no information overload unless you allow information to overflow.”
Saarikivi admits that very high skills of self-awareness and control are required today, but we are all capable of such functions. Habits are easily formed, and it is easy to stick to them, whereas changing one’s behavior requires energy.
“There are two paths to change – absolute necessity and an interesting and rewarding alternative to the status quo. For example, you can practice your abilities of self control and decide that instead of browsing your mobile device during a subway ride, you’ll give your brain some sorely needed time for idling.”
3. At work, you need to focus on using reason and set your emotions aside
The ability to interact and empathy skills are precisely the areas in which humans beat machines. Despite this, it is a common misconception that you should prioritize reason and set your emotions aside when at work. However, the truth is that it is impossible to switch off your emotions, says Saarikivi.
“The divide between rational thought and emotions is an extremely outdated approach. For example, it is difficult to find an area of the brain that would only be activated when in an emotional state or during some only other cognitive activity. Emotions are signals of salience that nuance our thinking and even our basic perceptual processes on a continuous basis.”
Identifying the emotions of another person based on, for example, body language or tone of voice requires being able to identify your own emotions first.”
Despite this, few people are aware of their emotions but, for example, develop rational explanations after making decisions based on feelings.
Empathy, which is not an emotion but a set of cognitive skills that can be practised, is also important in work. Empathy includes three areas: compassion, understanding the thoughts, and understanding the feelings of other people.
“Thinking-related empathy relies on the functioning of the mentalizing network, i.e. a good imagination. According to one study, reading fiction is one way of developing your imagination. Identifying the emotions of another person based on, for example, body language or tone of voice requires being able to identify your own emotions first, because people understand emotions by simulating them internally.”
Work that requires new solutions, interaction, empathy, and demanding problem-solving is a poor fit with the traditional hierarchical organization model.
“The traditional manager role means that some other adult makes decisions on your behalf and knows how and why things are done. However, adults are highly capable of controlling and developing their own selves. A traditional hierarchy merely increases distrust and the need for control.”
Saarikivi says that hierarchy could also be described as unhealthy, since it prevents people from using their higher cognitive skills. In fact, the brain flourishes under the strain that occurs when a person undertakes difficult work.
4. Certain creative jobs are suitable for people who were born creative
In working life, creativity is still often considered a special skill that particularly creative people practise when carrying out creative duties. Learning is seen as something that happens during a course. According to Saarikivi, this is not true.
“In the context of work, learning and creativity are closely connected. Both mean creating something new: better solutions to the problems you tackle at work. For example, customer service is creative when staff are allowed to react to the diversity of situations and customer needs. This also enables learning, because it provides an opportunity to observe how situations or customer needs differ from each other. This is something that machines cannot do.”
For this reason, Saarikivi claims that if everything were automated that could be automated, everyone would be doing creative work – or at least they should be.
The current definition of productivity leaves little room for creative thinking, because creativity requires space and opportunities to deviate from processes. It has even been linked to the brain’s default network, r the mentalizing – the same network that is active when a person uses her imagination. This is impossible if roles are strictly defined, and does not fit with the idea of continuous concentration from eight to four.
Learning is optimal when a person is in a curious state of mind – that’s when the brain’s pleasure centers interact more with the brain areas related to memory.
“Creative, learning-intensive work is natural for humans. If we are given sufficient freedom, this is how people will spontaneously behave, due to our in-built curiosity.”
Katri Saarikivi is a member of the steering group of Aalto EE's Digital Business Network, which brings together key players, the latest topics and up-to-date information in digital business. Read more about the program.