The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed our concept of work, accelerating technology-driven trends and leading to the embrace of hybrid models that combine traditional office environments and working from home. But the changes are not just about where work is done, but how it is done and by whom. In many industries, finance and wealth management included, there is no going back.
A phenomenon in public spaces in the past couple of decades has been the “flash mob”. In a busy shopping centre or city square, a group of people assemble suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere for a highly choreographed performance, only to disperse again shortly afterwards.
Conceived either as community-building, artistic, marketing or politically-driven events, flash mobs depend on a central organiser who brings together and coordinates participants (expert dancers or singers or actors) for a sole event in a defined space for a specific purpose.
The unique element of these events is concentrated innovation and effort in the service of a one-time need. It maximises participants’ flexibility and autonomy, without the layers of management and supervision required in traditional community dance or theatre.
Corporate flash mobs
So imagine if you could translate some of these principles to the modern workplace. “Flash-powered” organisations in finance and other industries could bring together autonomous “gig” workers and outside experts for concentrated projects addressing complex problems.
The experience of COVID-19 and the success many companies had with suddenly decentralised workforces has given us a sneak preview of what could be in store. In the US, for example, recent research by consulting firm DeVoe & Company found that among financial advisers, more than half of firms surveyed now embrace remote work on a long-term basis.
But the innovation extends beyond the distinction between working from home or the office. In another recent US study, researchers from the University of North Carolina, the University of Southern California and crowd-sourcing firm InnoCentive envisage a future where organisations are flash-powered, recruiting freelancers looking for high autonomy work and engaging them in a collective production process.
This isn’t such a radical change as it first appears when you consider the way work has been headed in recent years, with more than 90% of organisations depending on external experts to execute at least some of their tasks.
In the finance sector, more than half the financial services firms surveyed by consultancy firm PwC said they planned to expand their on-demand talent in the next three-to-five years.
The hunger for autonomy
Allied to this outsourcing is the trend toward “gig” work, one that has accelerated since the pandemic. Indeed, the “Great Resignation” of workers using the experience of working remotely to seek new autonomy outside regimented offices appears to be a global phenomenon.
It’s not that people don’t want to work anymore. It’s that they want more control over where they work, when they work, how they work and what they work on.
A study of hybrid working published in the Harvard Business Review recently said it is not so much flexibility that people are seeking in their working lives, but autonomy. In many ways, flexibility is an outcome of the benefit of greater autonomy.
The study of more than five thousand knowledge industry workers around the world found 59% said flexibility was more important to them than salary and other benefits, while 77% said they would prefer to work for a company that allowed them to work from anywhere, including the office if they needed to.
In the financial planning area, surveys such as the PwC example above are showing the fastest-growing firms are increasingly calling on external on-call experts in areas such as digital marketing, artificial intelligence, and behavioural science.
Of course, some of these “gig” workers may well become full-time staff, but at the very least they provide fast-growing financial firms with the opportunity to increase capacity in rapidly evolving business environments.
Clearly, the future will not be 100% flash-powered. Many firms will retain a lot of their internal structures and processes. Others, however, like the hybrid multi-cloud platform Red Hat, purchased by IBM for $34 billion, are made for this way of working.
The UNC/USC study quoted above sees four different scenarios for the future of work, built around two axes. One is the degree to which the work is driven by information on the one extreme or human emotion at the other. The second axis is the degree to which the work is repetitive at one extreme or unpredictable and unstructured at the other.
The high information, repetitive and routine work will increasingly be done by artificial intelligence. The high emotion, unpredictable work will be done exclusively by humans. In between, the researchers see a blend of human and AI, which they call “humobotic” work.
So, for instance, in remote healthcare, machines will increasingly take care of the data gathering and informational analysis, while humans will make the final judgements and deliver the results. Similar trends are increasingly seen in financial advice where automated remote solutions serve low-balance clients.
Of course, the changes in work – in part forced upon us – are also throwing up challenges. A key one, as many of are now finding, is how to create and preserve a workplace culture when so many people are not present, or are even part of the organisation.
As well, not every project is a one-off with a short time-span. Others may go on for months, or even years, which raises the question of at what point a ‘gig worker’ should become a full-time employee with all of the benefits. The case of Uber in its disputes with drivers is a case in point.
Another issue is how can human talent be nurtured and developed in an environment where the culture is that expertise is always bought in from outside? And how does intellectual property work when creative solutions are effectively crowd-sourced from external parties?
All thorny questions, but it seems clear that old styles of working, where a set workforce commuted each day to a big shiny building in the city to sit in a cubicle from 9-5 are well gone. First, technology now allows different ways of working. Second, companies need to be more agile if they are to remain innovative. Third, workers themselves want autonomy.
Change is coming, one way or another.
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