Home / Banking Strategies / How to build a better branch: One expert’s blueprint

How to build a better branch: One expert’s blueprint

Jan 18, 2018 / Consumer Banking

Much press coverage has been devoted to the dominance of digital banking channels and how it almost renders the physical bank branch network obsolete. Yet 90 percent of millennials—the generation most associated with tech savvy and preference—choose a bank with location convenience in mind, and a majority of customers still visit a branch at least every six months. Such evidence highlights the importance of maintaining a bricks-and-mortar presence and innovating the in-branch experience to entice customers.

Much of what retail banks tout as “innovation” merely repackages digital channels in-branch or reflects minor technology advancements. In fact, physical “improvements” such as scaling back waiting spaces and removing teller areas serve only to create cramped conditions and the impression that jobs are being eradicated and personal contact deprioritized.

What does it take to envision an innovative, interactive, future-thinking physical space? How can retail banks push boundaries to create a novel branch experience for customers and clients?

Innovations beyond banking: Activity-based design

Borrowing innovations from other industries can create stronger, more effective banking environments. For instance: Many recent advancements in the corporate workplace can apply to retail bank branches, such as spatial solutions and processes/tactics. Examples include “workplace strategy” initiatives—which align organizational activities with the working environment—to study and analyze a company’s work modes and activity-based environment to encourage productivity and collaboration.

The success of an activity-based design depends on empowering end users to adapt their environment to suit changing needs. Teams need leadership support and the right tools:

  • reconfigurable furniture
  • demountable partitions
  • writable surfaces, and
  • digital screens that can be plugged into a raised, electrified floor.

Such built-in “hackability” allows teams to constantly evolve, maximize efficiency, lower reconfiguration costs and optimize growth. Retail banks can adopt similar measures.

Industry challenges: Flexibility versus security

Yet unlike the progressive workplace, traditional construction remains the norm in banks. It’s typical to delineate branch interiors into transaction zones, dwell spaces and consultative areas, all built around a secure cash-handling zone. But in moving beyond this, security and stability requirements dictated by risk and compliance take up square footage and lock the layout in a fixed position. As such, they are not easily adapted without significant expense.  

Most branches also require private spaces—generally enclosed offices—to conduct confidential conversations. These permanent structures do not provide easy flexibility to accommodate future growth. Modular systems are an option for some banks, but may provide inadequate aural security for during transactions to protect from overheard conversations.

Lastly, automated transaction zones tend to be located proximate to an entry to allow 24-hour access. Customers rely on this convenience; however, funneling them to automation while limiting access to the retail space reduces human interaction and the ability to deepen relationships—which then further erodes the need and the drive to visit the financial center in the first place.

Branch design with workplace strategy in mind

When banks deep dive into a brand’s culture and identify an ideal employee workplace experience, the workplace strategy process nets a wealth of information to mine and interpret as primary design attributes. Many workplace challenges that retail financial services face can be solved by initiating similar research.

In retail banking, as in the workplace, an “activity path” of experiences should be easy to discern: from hosted entry areas to sales platforms to transaction areas, with each zone benefiting from manned interaction or automation. Looking at retail space through a workplace strategy lens uncovers possible interaction types in each area.

Thus, banks can rethink transaction areas and even decentralize and disperse them to provide an opportunity for such dialogues. Consider Apple’s Genius Grove concept, in which associates and customers interact for service throughout the retail space. When transactions become less focal and cash handling is remanded to automation, physical structures can be removed and adaptability liberated. (This takes some corporate courage, by the way: In Chicago, a recently opened location with a Genius Grove and glass elevators replaced a beloved Apple Store with much sentimental value, as the late Steve Jobs had considerable say in its design.)

Information privacy is another shared consideration. Risk and compliance controls must ensure the security of and control over customer information. We can borrow concepts from efficient workplace design—in particular—the use of controlled cloud-based computing that deploys remote-access terminals with no ability to remove client information from the server. Eliminating lockable drawers can discourage individuals from claiming space that might end up unused, while it guarantees compliance with secure retention practices and reduces needed space for printed data.

Incorporating these stringent controls can conversely allow more flexibility in branch bank design. Without bulky computers to manage, plus centralized controlled printing, management can make sure only necessary documents get printed. Capabilities created by fintech, such as remote signature capture, can further reduce paper and free up filing space for other usages. Workplace solutions focused on aural and visual privacy—including noise abatement, video screen blocking and baffled structures—can benefit branch and customer alike.

Putting it all together: New branch seeds, customer needs

With its attentiveness to work tasks and modes, workplace strategy can improve branch design in powerful ways. Adaptive spaces have proven a successful way for clients to grow and change in concert with team needs. Learning from these scenarios—and taking the time to look closely at individual customer and business needs—can net great results when applied to branches.

These potential solutions can also address design issues that include durability, longevity, adaptability and functionality as drivers to guarantee the continued relevance of these facilities. As we push the cutting edge of innovation to a sharp point, we can in turn create a branch network that showcases a client’s capabilities, yet subsumes a visual display of technology.

This should better position and prepare forward-thinking retail banks for future growth. It should also put an interesting twist on banking in 2018, where the assumption of branches closing up turns by design into a blueprint for business opening out.


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Based in New York City, Ray Ehscheid is Director of Client Services Financial and Retail Sectors, IA Interior Architects. Prior to joining IA, he was Senior Vice President, Design Services for Bank of America where he led design strategy for Corporate Buildings, Financial Centers and the ATM network.

If you enjoyed this article, check out: From customer experience to bank branch significance: Five predictions for 2018 and Five things we all get wrong about branch transformation.