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Roboadvisers: Your new benefits tool

'Roboadvice’ could be a great way to give employees advice on even tricky subjects

The robots aren’t ‘coming’. They are already here, and working in HR. But, unlike the many Hollywood interpretations, these workers come in the much less dramatic form of the ‘roboadviser’.

Already popular in the US, particularly with regard to managing financial matters, roboadvisers are now colonising the UK. However, the term ‘roboadvice’ is quite misleading. What we’re actually talking about here is automating systems that used to be manned by a human being.

Experts are predicting that roboadvice will play an increasingly important and complementary role in the HR mix, delivering efficiency, scale and cost-effectiveness.

So roboadvisers would probably advise you (based on the instantaneous analysis of much metadata) to make them a firm part of your team...

Where will this work?

In the complex world of finance, where processing big data is required in order to offer up options, roboadvice makes perfect sense.

HR business partner at BMT Group Daisy Mason hired Wealth Wizards to provide advice to the firm’s employees regarding where their pensions should be invested. “It can be onerous talking to someone about your finances. This is much quicker. It’s been gamified, which makes it more fun and we expect about a third of our employees to use it,” she says.

Employees answer questions designed to assess their attitude to risk. These inform the final recommendation made, displayed as a pie chart. The process takes about 15-20 minutes and the respondent can click a button at the end to put the plan into action, without the need to talk to a human or sign a form, as would have been the case previously.

This type of service is now being used because of advances in technology and cultural developments, which mean people are more comfortable managing their finances online.

Currently roboadvice is thriving in situations where data can be analysed to produce simple, unambiguous recommendations. As well as pensions it is being used to advise on ISAs and wealth management generally.

Where won’t it work?

If you’re dealing with a complex, sensitive situation where there is not an obvious ‘right’ answer or conflicting priorities, then roboadvice is not recommended. Instead discussing the pros and cons of various options with a (human) expert is advisable. For instance, in the Wealth Wizards/BMT example a financial adviser will give an employee a call if discrepancies are flagged up in their answers.

“If their answers contradict each other, especially on questions to do with the risk they are prepared to take, Wealth Wizards will talk them through it,” says Mason, adding that personalised guidance is paramount when dealing with money, and employees need to understand fully the reasons behind the roboadvice.

How far will the roboadvice trend go in the future?

We are already seeing roboadvice start to make waves in the employee healthcare sector too, with 2016 predicted to be a pivotal year for launches and growth. Experts believe that it won’t be long before the trend for people to monitor their health through wearable tech will be mainstream.

Empowered by tech from their employer they will take personal responsibility for their health, rather than looking to HR to manage ill-health. Babylon, for example, is launching its first ‘symptom checker’ in Q2, which uses artificial intelligence to help employees stay healthy, so productivity-sapping illness can be nipped in the bud. ‘Robodoctors’ analyse the data and suggest wellbeing improvements that workers could make.

The firm has also recently launched a simple mental health app where staff can automatically book a phone or video consultation with therapists, avoiding the need to deal with a human being – something that puts many people off because of the stigma still associated with mental illness. In future such suppliers have ambitions to innovate much more here by, for example, tracking mood, behaviour and workload in order to accumulate learning about an individual and spot when they are at risk of stress-related illness.

It’s early days, but as we get more accustomed to roboadvice there is no reason why the trend couldn’t branch out and take on a more sophisticated role.

“Commentators have recently highlighted cognitive computing as the next development of roboadvice. This is a form of software that mimics the human brain and is able to weigh up problems that don’t necessarily have a right answer,” reports Ian Bird, business development director at Foster Denovo.

“Give it another three to five years and I think we will see its true impact.”