W. Michael Scott Nov 22, 2013

Making Idle Staff More Productive

First, the bad news. “Idle time” – those periods during which branch staff is not performing account holder transactions or other meaningful tasks – can account for as much as 30% of bank employee paid time at the typical community bank, according to a study conducted annually by FMSI.

The good news is branch staff does not have to waste its idle time. Although banks can never eliminate idle time completely, effective, proactive management of idle time can help banks and their staffs put it to productive use through appropriate scheduling, employee training and activity management and compulsory accountability.

The Tedium of Idleness

Idle time represents more than a drain on your bottom line. It can also present a “brain drain,” causing some of your most talented and productive employees to leave in frustration. In many of the staff exit interviews from financial institutions (FIs) used in our studies, departing employees cited the tedium of idle time as one reason for dissatisfaction. This turns idle time into a “double whammy.” Not only does non-productive idle time waste your payroll budget, but it reduces the satisfaction and motivation of your workers.

So, why can’t branch management simply give idle staff extra work? Problem solved, right? Many try, but the results are ineffective because unplanned idle periods by their very nature are unpredictable and short-lived, especially for banks lacking accurate traffic forecasting capabilities.

The outcome is management being torn between keeping staff available to assist customers and knowing when to focus them on alternative meaningful tasks. As a result, staff either attempts to perform these tasks at their stations – and ends up overly focused on them when a customer approaches to be served – or they simply give up and stand around or perform unimportant “busy work.”

The reality, of course, is that staff cannot perform meaningful tasks when they are positioned for interruption by customers and have no idea how long the duration of their work period will be. This is especially true for tellers who are stationed at the teller window. The solution, then, is to define periods of idle time accurately and train staff what “success” looks like when they utilize that time.

Although there may be other methods of blocking out idle time periods successfully, in our experience this is most readily accomplished through the use of a proactive forecasting and scheduling system. Such systems, developed in-house or deployed as third-party technology platforms, can track and monitor your business over time and then generate forecasts of slow or idle periods where tellers (and potentially other staff) can safely leave customer-facing work stations without the likelihood of a sudden surge of business.

Leaving the customer service areas is an important part of the program, by the way, not only to allow staff to focus on its tasks, but also to ensure customer satisfaction. Consider tellers as an example. Surveys show that account holders will wait for assistance as long as five minutes, on average, before they become dissatisfied, especially if they do not see idle tellers on the line performing other activities.

Any technology or other programmatic solution to assist with proactive idle time management should be able to accurately harvest bank transaction histories and benchmark them against branch payroll outlay. It should also be able to make realistic, practical recommendations to minimize overstaffing.

It’s best, for example, to take action on overstaffing before you engage in idle time scheduling so that you productively use slow periods during the regular working hours of necessary staff, not fill up the schedules of excess staff with busy work. Additionally – and this is a core component of this process – any solution must offer a function that specifically identifies idle time rather than just busy periods. To be meaningful, identified idle periods should consist of at least 15-minute blocks of time.

Rethinking Idle Time

Success in this effort will require process reengineering driven by bank management, along with some “rethinking” on the part of branch staff. Grappling with idle time takes branches through several steps, with new approaches and attitudes required for each:

  • Commit to stop “chasing” idle time by waiting for it to occur and then rushing to fill it. Rather, stick to your forecasts about when idle time is likely to happen and then schedule dedicated work periods for those times.
  • Accept that idle time periods will not always be completely empty and prepare staff for this eventuality. The point here is to allocate resources for offline work for predictable idle periods, not to forecast, with 100% accuracy, when no customers will walk into your bank.
  • To utilize idle time effectively, leverage the customer wait-time expectations we mentioned earlier. Instruct targeted tellers and other staff to leave their stations during designated idle time work periods and not re-engage with customers unless management instructs them to do so.
  • Instruct and train staff which tasks to perform as well as when and where they should perform them. Document this effort and let staff know you are monitoring their achievements and holding them accountable for their progress. This shouldn’t come across as a punitive measure, but rather as a proactive solution to keep everyone from sitting on their hands.
  • Ask staff for their own suggestions on how to better utilize idle time – with the assumption that they will be able to focus on it effectively. You might even initiate a contest around it, rewarding those who come up with new and efficient tasks to add to the list, or who creatively help another department resolve an issue.

At first, your staff may be resistant to suggesting new activities to perform during idle time, as they may be unsure what tasks would be appropriate. Therefore, have back office departments define short, special projects that the branch staff could tackle during idle time. Every department, after all, has important but not overly complicated work that never seems to get done.

Second, devise an outbound, customer service related calling program to account holders during idle time. Tellers can connect with their customers and promote special offers that encourage branch traffic. And develop short, targeted training and mentoring programs to help personnel become cross-trained on different functions. After all, having staff that can perform more than one function competently gives you extra control over staff allocation, even during slow periods. Finally, ask the lending department to engage staff with paperwork, recording documents, preparing loan packages and other important work that tends to back up.

As banking service technologies, including online and mobile banking, continue to reduce transaction levels in the branch, increasing staff idle time will only become more problematic for banks that do not proactively address it. Ask branch management to keep a close watch on its staff's use of idle time and task someone in your organization with actively monitoring progress with the scheduling tools, training and awareness programs you implement. The productivity gains should be evident nearly immediately.

Mr. Scott is president/CEO of Alpharetta, Ga.-based Financial Management Solutions, Inc. (FMSI), which provides financial institutions with business intelligence and performance management systems for efficient branch staff scheduling and lobby management. He can be reached at mikes@fmsi.com.

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