I’ve written that collaboration is critical for solving today’s big problems and staying competitive, but carving out time to work together might not be enough for banks to succeed.
Financial companies need to ensure that employees have something to contribute to the team — and that requires them having the space and time to think deeply and creatively about the problems they are working on.
Social analysts have found that the culture of being “always on and available” — paired with the 24/7 nature of email — poses an insidious threat to our ability to think deeply. They argue that it is high time for employers, including banks, to address this issue.
I remember a few years ago when I was part of a legal and compliance team in a major bank. We had weekly team meetings to discuss various initiatives, current issues and best practices. For several meetings, the key item that was discussed was email management — how best to process email, how to stay on top of it, how quickly to respond to emails and so on.
While the topic may seem banal on its face, the reality is that generating and responding to email has become central to work for many people. Even as email is being supplanted by other forms of electronic communication these days, the point is the same. The expectation is that we should stop whatever we are doing so that we can respond almost immediately to communications. While we may think we are working hard in doing so, when we look back on a given day in the office and can only point to email and related tasks, can we really feel that we have accomplished anything?
To do a job well often requires us to think deeply about it. And previously, employees had more opportunities to think and were likely expected to do so. Cal Newport, a computer scientist at Georgetown, calls this kind of activity “deep work.”
Deep work requires sustained attention, whether the task is writing marketing copy or solving a tricky operational problem. Research has shown that employees feel greater satisfaction from their work when given time and space to devote to deep thinking — and that they feel that they accomplish more when given the chance to do it.
It maybe, however, that the nature of our deep thoughts are becoming more specialized and departmentalized. The London Metropolitan Police Force in the U.K., for example, has created a special unit of “super recognizers” comprised of police officers with advanced natural ability to recognize faces in a crowd with every little seeing time. This ability represents a very specialized type of deep thinking, requiring employees to think deeply in one specific field.
A very different example of such specialization is a project established by James Simons, founder and principal of leading hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, designed to drive new insights and findings in key areas of human thought. The Flatiron Institute houses four groups of computational scientists, each with 60 or more PhD-level researchers, to pursue advances in three areas: computational biology, computational astrophysics and computational quantum mechanics.
This same drive towards specialization needs to be pursued by banks. But to do so, similar tactics, such as setting up specialized units to perform certain tasks and promoting focus on problems that require deep thinking, need to be adopted. As banks leverage new technologies to perform relatively mundane tasks, employee time can be freed up for more focused and deep thinking in areas like fraud detection and model valuation analysis.
Leading banks have established teams with experts in the field of fraud detection, for example, encompassing cyber security threats, anti-money laundering attempts and internal fraud attempts. Employees with backgrounds in these types of financial crimes are encouraged to devote their working days to focus on this type of investigation. The tools they’ve developed can help eliminate much of the time otherwise spent on initial superficial data review, which enables them to spend their days interrogating and working the data to build the in-depth cases.
And when it comes to capital markets trading, large investment banks have started to cultivate a special set of employees known as “desk strategists.” Desk strategists create models and tools the trading desk can use to drive trading decisions and analyze and manage the risk of the positions currently on the books. Some banks have moved strategists and risk managers off the trading floor to help these workers better concentrate. Allowing individuals to address complex problems is critical to ensuring that they can do these tasks thoughtfully — and accurately.
There’s a good chance that banks that foster deep thinking could gain a competitive advantage going forward, as the industry is being upended. Trends from the rise of cryptocurrencies to changing trade agreements to the growing influence of China to the development of mobile banking technologies promise to keep bankers occupied for years to come.
The danger is that employees are not given the time and space to commit to this type of thinking, relying instead on superficial analysis and conclusions. To counter this, managers should protect their employees’ time and energy so that they can engage in deep work.