University of Helsinki: Improving knowledge work through cognitive ergonomics

The brain is under much strain in knowledge work, that is, work that requires a lot of thought, as it involves the continuous processing of information. Typically, knowledge work is also about working with people, making social skills and empathy – the ability to perceive a situation from another person’s perspective – important tools. The nature of this type of work has radically changed over the past decades.

As a result of digitalisation, we are approaching a situation where all mundane tasks are completed through automation, without any input from the knowledge worker. Customers do not usually need a travel agent, since they book their trips online, nor do they need an insurance clerk to enter their details into an online claim form. When everyday basic tasks are handled by systems on their own, people in specialist positions spend their time tackling exceptional cases.

This change has many effects on the nature and requirements of work. With the elimination of straightforward and smoothly progressing tasks that recur in similar form, work becomes increasingly demanding. Now, each task is an exceptional case in one way or another: something does not add up, or a previous decision must have been erroneous for the case to end up in the hands of the specialist in the first place. Therefore, there is a continuous need for information on the exceptional case at hand and the ability to solve uncommon problems. At the same time, the notion of normality can become blurred when specialists only encounter exceptional rather than normal cases in their work.

Stressful work requires better cognitive ergonomics
Physical ergonomics is improved by considering what kind of arms, legs, feet and back people have, and how their functioning can be taken into account in work as effectively as possible in order to keep people’s bodies as healthy as possible. In contrast, cognitive ergonomics refers to the human mind and its wellbeing. When improving cognitive ergonomics, consideration should be given to how the human mind functions – and how it does not function – and, on the basis of this information, work-related duties, tools, ways of working and, in particular, IT equipment and software should be redesigned so that we can protect the human mind and keep it as healthy as possible.

In specialist work, cognitive ergonomics has deteriorated in the 2000s. This manifests as mistakes made at work, stress and a sense of urgency, which lead to absences due to illness, somatic illness, burnout, sleeping problems and depression. The increase of telecommuting in the coronavirus pandemic has improved the cognitive ergonomics of some employees and also taught a lot about how workspaces affect the progress of work by specialists. We have also seen the downsides of telecommuting: remote work distances members of the work community from one another, and total telecommuting is certainly not a panacea for improving cognitive ergonomics.

Interruptions and multitasking, that is, doing several things at the same time, to which interruptions contribute, are stumbling blocks for cognitive ergonomics. We utilise a range of software programs and applications in our work, which we allow to interrupt us by default. Our email system has the permission to interrupt us with a pop-up window whenever a new message arrives, at worst with a ping thrown in as well. Teams is permitted to alert us to each individual comment, also in discussions we are not involved in at the time. Many specialists use several, sometimes even dozens of communication channels and collaboration platforms.

The entire work community is needed to improve cognitive ergonomics
The company behind a communication channel gives no consideration to the overall peaceful work environment or cognitive ergonomics of employees using the channel, but only their own profit. It is down to employees and work communities to constantly prevent interruptions by various channels. We are like the busy managers of the 1970s who snapped at their secretaries: “Don’t let anyone interrupt me or come to my office, I’m going to focus on an important task. Don’t connect any calls either.” The only difference is that there is no secretary – we serve as our own secretaries – and if we fail to prevent the interruptions, we will not be able to carry out our duties.

Improving cognitive ergonomics in the work community requires at least the following measures:

Interruptions should be curbed. The employer should set a block on pop-ups and alarm sounds as the default setting. Those employees who miss or need such interruptions for some reason can switch them on.
The ways of presenting and storing frequently used information must be well thought out. Information should be easy to find, it should preferably also be presented in graphic form, and details related to the same topic should be available in the same place.
Visual ergonomics must be in order. Display screens should be large enough and at an appropriate height, and the contrast of the text should be good. There should be no unnecessary movement in workspaces to attract attention, including people walking past display screens.
Consideration should be given to auditory ergonomics. The acoustics of spaces must be appropriate, with no noise, speech in particular, allowed to carry through.
It should be possible to organise work-related tasks independently, and to complete them from start to finish before moving on to the next task. It should be possible to complete tasks at your own pace.
Software and hardware must be chosen so that, instead of keeping tabs on trivialities, people can focus on the overall management of their tools.
Improving cognitive ergonomics requires contributions from everyone in the work community. There is a lot that individual employees can do themselves, but many decisions pertain to the entire community, making it necessary to discuss them collaboratively.

Information systems are continually being developed to improve wellbeing and cognitive ergonomics at work, and to better respond to flaws in human cognition. Perhaps in the future, information technology will learn to protect us from inefficient and stressful ways of doing knowledge work, filter out unnecessary interruptions and make room for the abilities that are specific to humans: creativity as well as the capacity to grasp extensive subject areas and solve difficult problems.●



This text is an abridged and edited version of the ‘Ihmisaivoille sopivampaa tiedonkäsittelyä’ (‘Information processing better suited to the human brain’) article originally published in a Think Corner paperback entitled Älykäs huominen (‘A Smart Future’), Gaudeamus.

Minna Huotilainen
is a professor of education at the University of Helsinki. In her research, she utilises methods of neuroscience to understand learning and factors that affect it. Huotilainen is particularly interested in applying the knowledge gained from brain research to the development of the education system and professional life. Among other distinctions, she has received the J.V. Snellman Award and the Sokrates prize for her contributions to the popularisation of science and research. Huotilainen also heads the international Master’s Programme in Changing Education.

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