Banks weigh the “when” and “how” of reopening

The relentless drumbeat of bad economic news – rising unemployment, shrinking GDP, volatile markets and more – is putting more focus on “when” and “how” the world is going to safely reopen for business. 

That growing focus is front and center in banking, even though the financial sector has remained open for business to deliver critically important services to consumers and businesses, but in very different ways. Drive-thru lanes are still operating, contact centers are fully functioning and lending operations are handling record application volume. Most functions have evolved to remote working arrangements with jobs now being performed from home offices. It has been a remarkable pivot for banks to be in position to continue providing essential financial services.

For financial services leaders, the notion of safely reopening is much more than reclaiming some familiar aspects of pre-coronavirus work life. Yes, there are things that we all miss when we reminisce about the pre-pandemic work environment, but there’s no question that there’s no totally going back to that world.

At BAI, we interact regularly with many bank executives in various roles and, recently, we have had the opportunity to facilitate collaboration on important issues relating to COVID-19, present and future. The top priority is the safety of employees and customers, and it should come as no surprise at this point that, when it comes to reopening branches and other banking offices, there are more questions than clear answers.

Start with the “when.” A driver of the decision is in the hands of the nation’s governors, who have different perspectives and are making different decisions. This makes planning to reopen even harder because so many banks do business in multiple states. With that said, the focus on safety, both for customers and bank employees will most likely lead to a phased and controlled approach to reopening.

Applying a test-and-learn approach is more feasible in phases and that will enable the safest approaches. The banks have done a good job of moving to a work-at-home arrangement for many positions and many executives are impressed with the ability of their teams to move to a remote working model as quickly and effectively as they did.

After the “when” comes the “how.” With safety as the priority, many factors impact the planned approaches, and plans can’t be one-size-fits-all. For examples, some higher-risk employees will need different accommodations to deal with underlying health conditions of their own or someone in their families. Many employees may have questions about coming back into a public setting that must be answered so they are comfortable with the transition.

While work-from-home has been a clear success, there still are some roles that can’t be performed as effectively in a remote setting. These roles will be a higher priority to return, especially when face-to-face interaction with customers and colleagues can’t be replaced by online collaboration tools. That’s why a phased approach that allows for variations by geography, employee segment or other factors will likely work the best. This approach will give banks a chance to try some things on a smaller scale and tweak their plans before they go broader.

Bank leaders are paid to make big decisions, but today’s reality is that they have to make these major coronavirus-related decisions – like reopening branches and other banking offices – with far less information than they’re used to having, in conditions changing at a pace that is faster and more out of their control than they may have ever had to face.

One way they are trying to better their vantage point is by assessing situations with the information they do have, and then collaborating both within their banks and with other banks to give them context for factors impacting decisions they must make. At BAI, we continue doing what we do to facilitate collaboration and information-sharing on important issues to best position financial services companies to support their colleagues, customers and communities.

Debbie Bianucci is the president and CEO of BAI.


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