Will Banking Executives Ever Return to the Office?

While the shift to remote work was originally supposed to be a short-term solution to a temporary problem, some banks and credit unions have no intention of bringing many workers back to the office. A high rate of productivity combined with worker preferences means flexibility may be a new expectation for back-office banking jobs.

As COVID cases decline and states continue to loosen restrictions, there’s growing hope that many parts of the economy may return to more “normal” conditions.

But for many banks and credit unions, the pandemic-driven experiment in remote work has proven there’s no longer a need for headquarters employees to go back to the office five days per week.

“We are not in a rush to get people back here. It’s working well and has been a huge opportunity for us to learn, grow and do things differently,” Tansley Stearns, Canvas Credit Union Chief People and Strategy Officer, tells The Financial Brand.

Canvas has nearly $3 billion in assets and 31 locations across Colorado. In the early days of the pandemic, the credit union quickly moved more than 300 employees to remote work. While restrictions have since loosened in the state, most of the 300 have continued to work remotely.

“We were dazed when this first happened, but I don’t think we’re fully going back to the way it was,” says Stearns. “It has become an opportunity to be more flexible as an organization.”

In some areas, the credit union has found remote work to be more productive and beneficial than in-office work. For example, Canvas’ marketing team has generated more ideas remotely using Microsoft Teams meetings than it did in person, says Stearns. She attributes this to greater confidence, a more relaxed environment, and a lack of concern about judgement. And loan division employees have proven to be just as productive at home as they were in the office, she notes.

To Return or Not? Views Are Shifting

While the decision to bring employees back to the office can depend on size, location, market, and the nature of particular job functions, many banks and credit unions say remote work will play a bigger part in their future.

As of August 2020, several of the country’s largest financial institutions acknowledged part of their workforce would remain remote even as the pandemic subsides. UBS Group, Barclays and JPMorgan Chase all said a large portion of their workforces could continue to work remotely.

Wells Fargo said in early August that it does not even know when it will return to a more “traditional operating model,” according to Bloomberg. And Truist said it would let more than half of its employees work remotely through Jan. 31, 2021.

While financial institutions have become conditioned to more employees working at home, so have the employees. A report by PwC found that 80% of office workers say they want to work from home at least one day per week, and 32% said they would like to work from home five days per week. Those numbers are up significantly since the start of the pandemic.

Even for institutions that want to have employees return to traditional office work, restrictions and the complexities of living in the pandemic have made it difficult. One big issue is that many kids haven’t returned to regular school, making it impractical for working parents to return to a regular 9-to-5 workweek at the office. Schools in many states have yet to return to in-person classes, and for those that have, one positive test in a class can put all other students back at home in a two-week quarantine. In such an uncertain time, employers have no choice but to be flexible, observes Paul Schaus, CEO of CCG Catalyst Consulting Group.

“It’s a big issue where some institutions can’t bring people back even if they want to,” says Schaus. “A lot of this is creating aggravation where parents want to go to work but the structure isn’t there.”

Changes Needed for Long-Term WFH Arrangements

If banks and credit unions are to retain these new remote work arrangements, they will need to move beyond the temporary solutions they put in place and tighten up their remote policies to ensure workers are not only productive but practicing good security.

“Fraudsters have been handed a new and very tempting field of play.”
— Judd Caplain, KPMG

COVID-19 has created a “huge monitoring” challenge for banks, says Judd Caplain, Head of Global Banking and Capital Markets at KPMG International in an article on the company’s site. As remote working levels remain high, banks and credit unions may need to establish new protocols around access management. “It is perhaps one of the unintended consequences of the mass migration to working from home that fraudsters have been handed a new and very tempting field of play. Employees could be more vulnerable to phishing emails and other scams,” Caplain states. Indeed, INTERPOL warned in an August report of an “alarming rate” of cyberattacks during COVID-19.

Stronger security standards and policies will need to be in place for long-term remote employees, Chris Tissue, Chief Operating Officer at CUCollaborate, maintains. “You have to have good controls in place, understand where your vulnerabilities are make the IT investments where they matter the most,” says Tissue.

Beyond security, financial institutions will have to consider how they’ll retain their company culture in an environment were employees are working remotely and don’t come in contact with one another. At Canvas, regular digital interactions and communication are essential to keeping the brand alive, Tansley Stearns says. The credit union’s annual “All Family Gathering” has moved to a virtual model that will bring all 625 employees together digitally.

“Culture is so important to us. Certainly, we hope there will be a time when we get back together in person, but we are committed that no matter where we are we are going to stay together,” Stearns insists.

The New Reality of the Office

Despite the pandemic-fueled growth in remote work at many institutions, there are some rural and smaller banks and credit unions that don’t have the infrastructure or capabilities to support remote work, according to Paul Schaus. “Some banks just aren’t ready. You have some that have traditional operations that still need wet signatures for a wire transfer,” he says.

Those who are maintaining their traditional offices or that want to bring employees back may have to address an array of new COVID-related health challenges and issues. Putting up barriers, enforcing social distancing, providing masks, and regularly sanitizing desks and offices can add cost and hassle. Some big banks that have recently remodeled their offices to make them more open may have to renovate them all over again, Schaus observes.

“They are back to putting in pods with high walls all because of COVID. Some didn’t bring people back because they didn’t have a place for them to work. Their offices aren’t designed for social distancing,” the consultant maintains.

There are also new HR considerations such as the need to keep data on COVID infections. Some states are now pushing employers to engage in contact tracing with mobile technology, network services, and communication tools to identify where people contracted the virus. The CDC features a list of digital contact tracing tools to help organizations keep employees safe.

But even if banks and credit unions do everything right, the new hassles and complexities of the post-pandemic office may weigh on morale and make it less attractive to employees. Management has to consider the fact that over and above health concerns, some people do not want a workplace experience where they have to wear masks all day and are isolated in cubicles and not able to mingle.

Remote Work Flexibility Will Become a Competitive Benefit

As the pandemic has given employees a taste of freedom in roles for which it was previously not an option, it may be hard to put the lid back on remote work even after the pandemic subsides. That means banks unwilling to offer flexibility in where and how employees work may find themselves at a competitive disadvantage in the talent market.

“If you are going after talent, offering that flexibility is going to win out. It’s not necessarily full remote versus in the office everyday, but flexibility for the individual,” says Chris Tissue.

“I think the future of banking is going to have a balance,” Schaus believes. “Employers are going to have to be more flexible, even after the pandemic.”

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