Lessons One Community Bank Learned Through the COVID Pandemic

The coronavirus crisis has been as challenging for banks and credit unions as it's been tough on the people they serve. More trouble may be coming later this year from the disease and certainly economic and political turmoil will continue. Here's how a banking leader thinks his institution can do better going forward.

“The readiness is all.” Spoken by Hamlet toward the end of that great play, the phrase caps his reflection on fate and chance. After months facing COVID-19 and its economic and human ripple effects, banking executives have been pondering how their institutions can create and implement strategies to produce a better state of readiness for the next crisis.

America’s institutions and enterprises varied widely in their level of preparedness and in their success confronting the coronavirus crisis. That there would be such variance among financial institutions — when we had all been required to have developed pandemic preparedness plans — was shocking.

Why weren’t we all better prepared? We never accepted that we are not at all in control of what is to come. This goes against our natures. In the delusion of corporate life, ruled by numbers and forecasts, we have accepted these figures as an ultimate law, something like gravity. We believe in our numbers and our spreadsheets … and we mistake that for reality.

“Readiness,” going forward, demands accepting that the world can defy our modeling.

That is not fatalism. When we become realistic, we will learn to prepare for future challenges by building systems incorporating greater tolerance, resilience or sustainability — pick your own term.

Consider, for example, what role the once-popular “just in time” inventory and supply chain practices played in compromising our readiness in times of crisis or strain. The failure of government, corporate and medical leaders to stockpile inexpensive medical face masks, when the reasonably anticipated need had been documented for years, is an example. We must acknowledge that minimization of capital supporting a business, or a family, for that matter, contributes to our sense of crisis.

Building on What We Got Right in the Coronavirus Crisis

Institutions didn’t get everything wrong. Sometimes efforts undertaken for different reasons paid off.

Here’s an example of how my own institution, Lead Bank, had something helpful in place when COVID-19 arrived, though for different reasons. Years ago, we decided that to attract the best workforce, we had to provide job flexibility to pretty much everyone who needed it, whether on a short-term or permanent basis.

This was driven particularly by recognition that our women staff members often faced tremendous challenges balancing their careers and ambitions outside the home with their love and concern for their families in the home. We didn’t want them to give up on us, or their hard-earned, independent careers, because of these pressures.

We invested in technology to enable remote-working, such as videoconferencing and chat, and provided the equipment employees would need to work remotely at home. Because we deployed this early, we were able to have almost all our workforce working safely from home when the crisis began. Most important, we had created a mindset that the support for our people’s welfare was a relevant strategic consideration for the bank.

But how do you build on that successful experience? For example, how do you plan from a position of acceptance —accepting, for example, that you may be losing talented staff one way or another in a pandemic?

The task becomes one of building more resilience and internal capability within the bank.

  • Rethink how you train and cross-train — we will need people to back each other up.
  • Hire people with curiosity who will work to expand their skills — who can predict what abilities will be needed the next time?
  • Encourage team members to build deeper and stronger social networks inside and outside the enterprise.
  • Learn before you need to know something. Information and intelligence exists throughout the community that can help in an emergency, so a banking organization needs to be voracious about taking it in and learning.

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How Lead Bank is Preparing for the Future

We’ve been thinking a good deal about these issues at my bank.

1. The in-person banking experience.

I contend that people will always value and, even seek out quality human experiences and relationships, often face-to-face. So we have to make sure that Lead Bank stands for quality and care for that relationship.

We are well underway in deploying our re-designed branch experience for our largest location. Consistent with our downtown branch, built in 2014, we are replacing the teller counter, and therefore client queues, with standalone and separate bankers’ desks, large “library tables,” and smaller semi-private booths. These design elements, along with the availability of multiple conference rooms of different configurations, will enable people to spread out, to literally find the right distance for themselves, to make themselves comfortable as they go about their work.

The principle here is fundamentally unchanged from our approach in 2014 to our downtown offices: The bank architecture — and think here of digital channels as well as physical locations — must be adaptable and accessible to all the clients we intend to serve.

People must feel welcomed, safe, respected and served. Because there all sorts of people in this world: white, black, Latinx, Asian, men, women, LGBTQIA, disabled, and vulnerable to illness. Banking institutions have the responsibility to adjust the ways we serve to meet the need.

Indeed, we think of our employees as the first people that the bank must serve with sensitivity and respect. So the architecture of the physical workspace needs to serve their concerns about health, too. We didn’t anticipate these architectural elements being suited for pandemic “physical distancing” when we developed them — but what we did see is that we had to adapt our facilities for how our clients wanted to interact.

2. Doing right by the concerns of our clients and staff also means thinking about our digital presence in the world.

We’ve seen during the height of the coronavirus crisis that people understand and value our digital banking tools, such as mobile deposit and P2P payments. Now that we’ve shown them the safety and convenience of the tools, the bank needs to demonstrate commitment to improving them.

We have to ask questions like, what digital tools are we lacking? And which services turned out to be substandard in the coronavirus crunch? On the latter point, for example, we have bolstered our call center and have added bilingual staff to service our callers, anticipating that our growing and diverse clientele will need more services provided by phone.

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A related challenge for financial institutions goes beyond their organizations proper.

Lead Bank is committed to a digital path, informed by the legacy of community relationship banking. This means that we must redouble our efforts to reach more people, providing steadily improving digital access to the kind of relationship they want.

But we have been learning that the “digital divide” is a huge stumbling block in our country. Consumers and staff from under-resourced communities, both urban and rural, are suffering from a lack of high-quality digital access that affluent people and residents of large urban centers just take for granted.

The challenge for working families, including our staff members, to “home school” their children through online classes during the pandemic has been severe. This digital divide affects our staff and the consumers and businesses we serve, and threatens our business, as we look out ahead to a digital future.

Financial institutions in some way need to be part of the solution to this uneven situation.

This serves as one more acknowledgement that devising systems that move, flex and respond to the certainty of our uncertain future is the task at hand — and an ongoing one.

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