January 10, 2020

The Role of Culture in the Gig Economy Workforce

The Role of Culture in the Gig Economy Workforce

Happy New Year! I hope you all enjoyed your holidays and are refreshed and ready for a great 2020.

I spent most of the first work week of the new year in Naples, FL, attending the AICPA’s semi-annual meeting of the leaders of the country’s largest accounting firms. After several days with peers and friends in the accounting, tax and advisory industry, there is one topic that I have not been able to get complete closure on.

In a room full of leaders from the top 100 firms in our space, the most frequently mentioned topic after “trust” was the concept of people management and culture (which is not surprising, seeing as we are in the service business and our core value proposition lies with our people).

When asked what topic we wanted to focus on to map out future outcomes, we unanimously honed in on “remote work force” – the crux of the gig economy.

Obviously, this is a topic that is top-of-mind for many of us. But why that topic instead of other, much more “trendy” topics such as digitalization, AI, RPA, etc.?

We all have remote teams to some extent, but the idea that the needle could shift towards a majority remote workforce seemed to put everyone somewhat on edge!

As we dug deeper into our analysis, the benefits of a remote workforce were evident – seasonal staff, access to a broader talent pool, increased diversity of talent, and real estate savings, to name but a few.

The areas that would require a shift in approach were also easily identifiable, such as a strong investment in technology to support such a workforce, education platforms adapted to online and virtual learning, and leadership and management training in the context of a virtual team, as well as increased off sites/retreats/town halls and other group moments for teams to reconnect in person and maintain our respective “cultures.”

As we continued this discussion, I couldn’t help but notice the intensity of the debate regarding culture and loyalty as we desperately tried to define the various ways that we would work to ensure that our respective cultures would remain “strong and intact” in a mainly remote environment.

People from other industries, such as pure consulting and technology firms, would probably look at us and wonder why we are even having this discussion – since “people can work from anywhere,” this is a “non–issue.” And let’s face it. Accounting is not exactly an industry always seen as being on the cutting edge.

I couldn’t help but wonder if this is just “us accounting firms” being behind the times or if, on the contrary, it is a concern for our industry (particularly for mid-sized firms) due to the fact that our profession is based on shared culture, collaboration, and our ability to develop deep relationships of trust with our people and our clients.

Was it our collective fear that we might not be able to maintain this business model without a majority of our teams grouped in defined and shared physical locations?

And then a dark thought came to mind… What if culture and loyalty (the values so essential to us as mid-sized firms) were not at all the core factors driving the gig economy workforce?

What if employees of the future approach their work as purely transactional, as “moment-in-time” projects with a firm of their choosing, which could change from one season to another…from one year to another? What if they prioritize independence over loyalty and culture? Would there be one big talent pool that floats among the various firms? How would we maintain consistency of client teams and deep relationships, and how would we handle knowledge transition? How would this impact our talent model and the partnership structure? And so forth.

I am not sure we came up with a concrete conclusion in this internal debate, but as is the case with so many things in life, we will probably strike a healthy balance of both remote and non-remote employees as the ideal make up of our firms as we move into this next decade and beyond.

I can also only imagine – hope – that culture will continue to be a key deciding factor for the gig economy workforce when confronted with the choice of what type of firm (or firms) they want to engage with. (The concept of a world where company/firm culture would have zero value is unimaginable to me).

We will need to actively anticipate the required changes to attract and cater to a remote workforce, but we will also have to reinforce our focus on our core values of culture and deep relationships based on trust, that we share as founding principles with our people, clients, and communities.

Long live culture and loyalty!

A big thanks to my friend Rebecca Goodman-Stephens, Chief Operating Officer of Berdon LLP, who collaborated with me on this post.