How cognitive ergonomics will change the workplace

Payroll and HR | 06.11.2019

by Jaana Kilpimaa

The importance of cognitive ergonomics in the workplace will increase in the future. Here is how – and what that actually implies for businesses. 

Diversity, complexity and interdependence challenge the way we are picturing the professional workplace. Professional work is more and more about joint problem solving, searching for new creative solutions and interactive work. However, standardized processes, competencies and operational efficiency are still often emphasized in professional work – and in developing it.

Things you have already learned become less important. Diversity increases. Experts have to adopt a continuous process emphasizing mental flexibility and receptivity. Moreover, basic assumptions need to be challenged. Cognitive ergonomics is often associated with altered work processes and environments driven by new technologies. In a broader sense, it also refers to the employee’s mental abilities, elasticity of the mind, openness, psychological flexibility, learning and unlearning. In the future, psychological flexibility, learning to learn, elasticity of the mind, social interaction, emotional skills and empathy will be essential competencies.

The important question is this: how do we adapt our processes, environments and skills at work to support the well-being and productivity of employees?

Psychological flexibility is directly connected to workload management and work performance. Research by Bond and Bunce (2003 and 2006) shows that increased psychological flexibility has many positive effects. Not only on well-being, but also on work performance and learning new things. Flexibility is a skill that can be trained. It means knowing your own mental models and being able to adapt and change them purposefully. Our way of seeing the world defines what we are able to perceive and develop. The better understanding you have of your own mind, the better relations you are able to build at work.

Cognitive ergonomics – feelings matter

Customer problems are solved through human interaction. In their book, Aivot Työssä, Minna Huotilainen and Katri Saarikivi discuss various studies that reveal how feelings affect the fluency of collaboration and interaction. Their findings demonstrate how exposure to each others’ feelings influences the behaviour and performance of the whole group.

The quality of interaction is highlighted as an important predictor of problem-solving ability. Problem-solving ability and collective intelligence peaked in teams in which everyone had an equal right to express their opinion. Plus, the team members had a high levels of empathy.

Feelings affect our decision-making and tell us if things are going in the right direction. They signal our current state of being to others through bodily expression. Feelings are also highly contagious. Sometimes we do not realise which feelings and energy we bring with us to the team, affecting its atmosphere and work performance. Understanding the effects of feelings help us build better functioning work communities and improves the quality of interaction.

Fight or flight?

A positive outlook and atmosphere open the mind to new possibilities. On the other hand, stress make us resort to old and safe options. In a famous study by Google, the most important predictor of team success was psychological safety. Psychological safety gave people the courage to present unfinished thoughts and make mistakes. It gave them a feeling that they could talk about personal matters as well. In many ways, our brain is still that of a hunter-gatherer. Recognising threats and reacting to them swiftly is the key to success. Fight or flight is still a typical response to both physical and psychological threats. In this state, your focus and decision-making perspective become narrower. You are not able to come up with fresh ideas. Your cooperative skills and empathy are weakened. If there are factors in the workplace that constantly trigger a fight or flight response in employees, you should try to determine what is causing this feeling of threat – and how it could be reduced. For example constant criticism, assessment or an authoritarian style of leadership, or your own learned interpretation and reaction models.

Therefore, it would be useful to discuss the following even further: How do we understand work and efficiency? How does your organisation support intelligent work and the cognitive ergonomics of work?

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About Jaana Kilpimaa

Senior Advisor, Azets. Jaana has more than 15 years of experience in change and reform projects. Jaana’s areas of expertise also include leadership development on both organisational and individual levels.