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    November 12, 2023

    Tomorrow's Mentor-Powered Workforce: Emily Harburg on Tackling Career Development Challenges

    Emily Harburg, Ph.D., is a visionary leader at the forefront of revolutionizing workplace dynamics. As the CEO and Co-Founder of PairUp, Harburg is passionately dedicated to reimagining how people connect and collaborate in professional settings. With a unique blend of industry experience, academic expertise, and a deep understanding of human psychology, she has embarked on a mission to leverage technology and foster meaningful connections that empower individuals and drive organizational success.



    Emily Harburg, Ph.D., Co-Founder & CEO at PairUp

    I recently sat down to chat with Emily Harburg about future of work trends as part of my research to produce Season 1 of The Lever with Drew Fortin. This show highlights how the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and Web3 will shift the paradigm of humans at work for the better. I wrote this article based on my notes and transcripts from the interview. You can also watch a video of my interview with Emily Harburg, Ph.D., Co-Founder & CEO at PairUp, below.

    The Journey and Birth of PairUp by Reimagining Workplace Connections

    Harburg is on a mission to revolutionize the way people connect at work. She aims to empower individuals and organizations with a focus on providing timely assistance and fostering meaningful connections. Drawing from her diverse background in industry, academia, and startups, including stints at Disney Imagineering and Facebook (now Meta) and her expertise in computer science and psychology, he recognized the need for technology-driven solutions to enhance workplace connectivity.

    The inception of PairUp was catalyzed by the global shift towards remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic. As organizations grappled with the challenges of distributed workforces, Harburg's research and experiences resonated strongly. Leveraging this momentum, she built the PairUp platform, assembled a talented team, and secured funding.

    "We’re really determined on reimagining the way people connect at work. And we're focused around helping people get the right help at the right time." – Emily Harburg, Ph.D., Co-Founder & CEO at PairUp

    Over the past year and a half, PairUp has successfully served a wide range of customers, significantly impacting how work is conducted. Harburg envisions a future where employees feel more connected and empowered in their professional endeavors by harnessing technology to foster collaboration, support, and motivation.

    The Vision to Redefine and Evolve Employee Relationship

    Harburg believes that the employee relationship is transforming rather than being broken. She sees a future where new lines are drawn for connecting with employers and reimagining the role of work in people's lives.

    With the emergence of trends like the "great resignation" and technological advancements shaking the game, Harburg sees an opportunity to prioritize the whole person at work and embrace uniquely human aspects. She acknowledged the need to balance leveraging AI for good and preserving human thought and agency.

    "There have been numerous events, such as the great reset and the great reshuffling. It's challenging to keep track of all these 'greats' that have occurred over the past couple of years. What gives me hope is that new opportunities are emerging for people to connect with their employers in different ways." – Emily Harburg, Ph.D., Co-Founder & CEO at PairUp

    Through her psychology and computer science research studies, Harburg aims to build systems that positively impact employees' well-being and performance. The journey towards a more human-centered approach to work requires thoughtful consideration and collaboration.

    The Intersection of Human Connection and Meaningful Work

    In the quest to define the evolving role of humans in a world increasingly dominated by technology, Harburg shed light on the unique qualities humans bring to the table. As machines take on transactional and objective tasks, she believes humans should focus on areas where technology struggles, such as emotional intelligence, rational thought, critical thinking, and human connection. While acknowledging the potential of AI and ChatGPT, she emphasizes that technology can never fully replace the power of genuine human interaction.

    "I won't generalize too broadly, but I do believe that we all seek meaning and yearn for work that aligns with where we can best utilize our strengths and make a meaningful contribution." – Emily Harburg, Ph.D., Co-Founder & CEO at PairUp

    Drawing from her experiences, Harburg seeks to create systems that optimize both technological advancements and human capacity, allowing individuals to engage in more meaningful work that aligns with their values. This aligns with the deep yearning for purpose and meaning that she believes exists within every individual. By leveraging AI to handle tasks that are not uniquely human, she envisions a future where people can tap into their passions and unique voices, contributing to a less competitive and more harmonious society.

    Exploring the Connection between Technology and Human Connections

    With a mission to transform traditional networking and biased connections, Harburg is focused on utilizing technology to connect the right people at the right time. She believes that chance encounters and serendipity are flawed systems, and PairUp aims to overcome these limitations by leveraging technology to remove bias and facilitate meaningful connections.

    In the context of the rapidly evolving job market, Harburg acknowledges the significant impact of AI. Reports from the World Economic Forum predict that millions of jobs will be displaced while new ones will be created. Recognizing this platform shift, she emphasizes the need for thoughtful development of AI. She believes that diverse perspectives, including educators, social scientists, and experts from various fields, must come together to shape AI in a way that benefits society as a whole.

    "I believe one of my fundamental premises is that networking and connections can be significantly biased." – Emily Harburg, Ph.D., Co-Founder & CEO at PairUp

    Harburg envisions a future where AI revolutionizes the world, much like the internet did. While acknowledging the potential challenges and unintended consequences, she advocates for careful preparation and collaboration to ensure a smooth transition. As technology continues to reshape our lives, she emphasizes the importance of involving the right minds in building a future where humans and AI can coexist harmoniously.

    Navigating the Unintended Consequences of Artificial Intelligence

    Recognizing the need to address the challenges that come with technological advancements, Harburg highlights the importance of considering the recommendations provided by AI systems and ensuring their accuracy and lack of bias. She acknowledges that early AI systems have displayed biases and, at times, provided incorrect information, stressing the significance of training AI to be less biased and more reliable.

    In contemplating the broader impact of AI on society, she raises concerns about potential global conflicts and disruptions caused by this powerful technology. While acknowledging the extreme risks, she also emphasizes the everyday implications for individuals, including children, youth, and professionals, who interact with AI in various aspects of their lives.

    Considering the implications for future generations, Harburg envisions a world where AI transforms learning and challenges outdated educational methods. She believes that AI has the potential to revolutionize learning by reducing rote memorization and fostering human creativity and critical thinking.

    Furthermore, she explores the concept of AI as a teammate and its ability to facilitate human vulnerability and connection. Drawing from her own experience with PairUp's bot, Sam, she reveals how naming and personalizing AI entities can create a sense of companionship and encourage individuals to share openly. This phenomenon extends beyond PairUp, as studies indicate that even the elderly can feel more comfortable expressing their needs to robots compared to humans.

    "At first, our bot felt quite impersonal, very AI-like. But then we decided to name it Sam, and now it's become more like a 'B' (short for bot), with a distinct personality. Surprisingly, we've noticed that even our customers refer to it as a teammate. It's become a platform where I can open up and share things I might not say to real people." – Emily Harburg, Ph.D., Co-Founder & CEO at PairUp

    As AI continues to shape our world, Harburb offers valuable insights into the potential risks and rewards, emphasizing the need for thoughtful development, addressing biases, and harnessing AI's potential to enhance human experiences.

    Exploring the Future of Performance Measurement and the Power of Mentorship

    When sharing her insights on the future of performance measurement and the significant impact of mentorship on productivity, Harburg raises thought-provoking questions about how traditional metrics may not accurately capture individuals' true impact and suggests alternative ways of assessing productivity and critical thinking.

    In her exploration of performance measurement, She challenges the conventional nine-to-five workday and emphasizes the need for more flexible and personalized metrics. She suggests that allowing individuals to measure productivity based on their own peak performance times could lead to more meaningful contributions to organizations. By rethinking the metrics used for assessments, companies can create an environment where individuals can thrive and make a genuine impact.

    Turning her attention to mentorship, Harburg highlights the abundant research on the power of having mentors and role models. She explains that mentorship plays a pivotal role in fostering persistence, belief in one's abilities, and career advancement. The presence of even one close friend at work has been found to increase an individual's commitment to an organization significantly. She also underscores the importance of human connection and mentors' unique support, surpassing the capabilities of AI bots or search engines.

    "I do think that there's an element where we could start to actually measure productivity. And there are a lot of these questions now, should we even have a  9 - 5 workday? Is that when people are most productive? Can productivity even be measured? Are these different measurements of productivity more in line with them actually being impactful for the company or them adding kind of critical thought?" – Emily Harburg, Ph.D., Co-Founder & CEO at PairUp

    As the future of work continues to evolve, she encourages organizations to recognize the profound influence of mentorship and human connections on performance and career development. By embracing mentorship programs and fostering genuine relationships, companies can cultivate an environment where individuals thrive and contribute to long-term success.

    Unleashing the Power of Human Connection and Optimizing Technology in the Workplace

    Harburg stated that the business incentives and value behind fostering human connections and leveraging technology in the workplace. She emphasizes the impact of connected ecosystems, highlighting how increased touchpoints and support within teams positively influence performance, productivity, retention, and overall joy at work. Through longitudinal studies, Harburg showcases the tangible benefits of having people in one's corner readily available for assistance.

    One key metric that she is passionate about is reducing duplication of work and improving access to knowledge within organizations. Studies indicate that employees spend approximately eight hours a week searching for answers that could be easily obtained through human interaction within the company. By increasing touchpoints and encouraging collaboration, companies can save valuable time and enhance productivity on a significant scale.

    When it comes to assessing the value of humans in the workplace, Harburg emphasized the unique skills and qualities they bring to the table. Humans possess critical thinking abilities, emotional intelligence, and the capacity for building meaningful relationships. While technology can assist in certain tasks, nothing can replace the power of human connection and collaboration. She believes striking a balance between leveraging technology for efficiency and preserving the irreplaceable aspects of human interaction is essential.

    "For me, the question is, can these tasks be more efficiently handled by a machine that can process vast amounts of data, make sense of it, offer recommendations, and perform repetitive tasks that don't warrant manual effort?" – Emily Harburg, Ph.D., Co-Founder & CEO at PairUp

    In terms of technology's role in the workplace, Harburg suggests that it should be used where duplicative tasks, data processing, and recommendations from large datasets are involved. Machines can excel in these areas, freeing up time and resources. However, there are also instances where human thought and diverse perspectives are necessary to make sense of complex information and ensure unbiased decision-making.

    By embracing the power of human connection and optimizing technology where it adds value, organizations can create an environment that maximizes growth, productivity, and employee satisfaction.


    Exploring the Rise of Freelance and Fractional Work and its Implications for the Future of Employment

    Harburg shared her insights on the growing popularity of freelance and fractional work. She discussed the possibility of building a company solely with freelance or fractional workers and the impact it can have on team cohesion and productivity.

    According to her, many startups are embracing freelance and fractional work as they recognize the benefits of leveraging specialized talent for specific projects. However, she also highlighted the importance of team cohesion and daily collaboration in building companies and achieving success. While freelancers can contribute deeply, having a cohesive team that works together closely can have a significant impact.

    Harburg predicts fractional work will continue to rise, along with the increasing demand for hybrid work models that offer flexibility regarding when and where people work. She believes that the advent of AI will redefine job roles, creating opportunities for different types of minds to contribute to specific tasks.

    Furthermore, she expresses excitement about the shift towards contract-based employment and its potential for redefining traditional work norms. She notes that Europe is leading the way in adopting innovative work practices, which can inspire advancements in other parts of the world.

    "I anticipate a rise in fractional work, and even hybrid work arrangements, as people seek greater flexibility in terms of when and where they work." – Emily Harburg, Ph.D., Co-Founder & CEO at PairUp

    While acknowledging the benefits of freelance and fractional work, she also raises concerns about the potential drawbacks, such as the lack of human connection and the challenges of maintaining work-life balance. She emphasized the need to carefully consider the implications of these new work arrangements and find ways to address the potential downsides.

    Since the world continues to evolve, Harburg encouraged ongoing dialogue and thoughtful consideration of the changing landscape of work, ensuring that these trends are leveraged to empower individuals and organizations while addressing their potential pitfalls.

    Changing Landscape of Career Development and the Need for Diverse Perspectives in Tech

    Being an advocate for career development, Harburg shares her thoughts on the evolving nature of career paths and the increasing importance of taking control of one's career development. She highlights how the availability of online learning platforms and the possibilities offered by the internet have opened up a world of opportunities for individuals to explore different skill sets and pursue multiple career paths simultaneously.

    According to her, the traditional notion of choosing one job and sticking with it throughout one's career is being challenged. She cites the example of young professionals already engaged in multiple career paths at a relatively early stage, showcasing a shift in mindset and attitudes towards work.

    However, this trend of pursuing diverse career paths raises concerns among companies. They question the level of commitment and worry about employees juggling multiple responsibilities simultaneously. Startups, in particular, grapple with the idea of "quiet quitting" – where employees may be working on side projects or other ventures while officially employed.

    Harburg also reflects on her experience working at Facebook (now Meta) and her intense immersion in the company culture. While it created a sense of connection and dedication to the job, it also blurred the boundaries between work and personal life. This raises interesting challenges for organizations that foster employee engagement in a hybrid work environment.

    "When I was working at Facebook, it was a job where I'd spend my entire day. I'd ride there on a company bike, and it was so convenient that I even did my laundry there. They provided me with breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Sometimes, I'd go in on weekends, meet friends, go rock climbing, and work on our projects. In a way, my work and personal life started to blend into this one space, allowing me to bring my whole self, which was truly amazing." – Emily Harburg, Ph.D., Co-Founder & CEO at PairUp


    In addition to discussing career development, Harburg emphasized the need for diverse perspectives in the tech industry. She believes that various minds, including psychologists, anthropologists, social scientists, and artists, are crucial for building responsible and ethical technology systems. By involving a broader range of perspectives, companies can ensure that the complexities and potential biases of AI systems are carefully considered.

    She also encouraged collaboration and the active participation of diverse voices in the tech industry. Instead of shying away from the challenges posed by technology, she advocates for collective effort in building systems that benefit society as a whole.

    Want to hear more from Emily Harburg?


    Drew Fortin

    Drew is a people-first, values-driven leader with nearly 20 years of growth strategy and team-building experience across retail, marketing technology, local media, and HR tech. He spent 7 years at The Predictive Index, where he was Chief Growth Officer responsible for the company's strategy to build the world's first...

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