How can the work from home trend become an opportunity for credit unions?

As businesses large and small assess whether to move more permanently to “Work from Home” policies and practices, many credit union leaders are wondering how this business trend might be turned into an opportunity as opposed to a possible productivity threat.

By now, we’re all aware that most of the world is more familiar with zoom, teams and webex meetings than they are with how to find their way around the old office. And experimenting with fun virtual backgrounds has gone from a novelty to an accepted practice and back to the realization that maybe we should just create a clean, well-lit real background for these meetings.

As leaders, we may actually feel more connected than ever to our team members because of the ease of using video calls for individual and group meetings with ease and efficiency. And the COVID crisis has served to require and justify the almost universal move to remote work, communication, sales and service support. The longer-term question is, what will we do after the COVID crisis is contained. What will we have learned and where will we head with office and remote work dynamics?

While most credit unions have at least partially reopened their branches and service centers, virtually all credit union leaders are assessing whether, and when to allow or require employees to come back to both service centers and administrative offices. In the case of those who have made a recent investment in either branch networks or administrative offices, there may be a tendency to lean toward business as usual. For those who have not done so, it may be easier to assess the societal trend toward and expectation for remote work opportunities. And with this comes the necessary long-term facility and company culture planning exercises.

For smaller credit unions with one office or even a few branches, there will be a tendency to lean toward the status quo also, and most mid-size and larger credit unions will be somewhere between where Big-Tech companies like Twitter and Facebook are going with permanent work from home practices versus small retail businesses who feel compelled to keep their physical storefronts as their main service differentiator.

Among larger companies, including those in financial services, this is what we’re hearing:

  • Mondelez’ CEO has said, “we can work in different ways,” and as a result, the company does not need all its global offices.
  • Nationwide announced a permanent transition to a hybrid model with working-from-office in four main corporate campuses and working-from-home in most other locations.
  • Barclays CEO said that offices with thousands of people may be a thing of the past.

Both customers and employees are poised to accept and embrace the new normal of service-from-home and work-from-home. The question for credit union leaders is, what will work best for their members and employees? And attracting, managing and retaining a talented workforce in this environment will be among the most challenging strategies to address.

While these trends will certainly lead to harder times for the commercial real estate industry, they create huge opportunities for cost savings and more productive and satisfied employees.

In a March 18, 2020, Harvard Business Review article, three professors of management and human resources suggested a guide to managing newly remote workers. Professors Larson, Vroman and Makarius laid out the major challenges and possible solutions for managing a remote workforce.

Maintaining engagement and productivity requires an understanding that the common challenges include, the lack of face-to-face supervision, lack of access to information, the effects of social isolation, and distractions at home that affect productivity.

The authors suggest that some simple remedies might include, structured daily check-ins, enabling several communication technology options, establishing “rules of engagement”, providing opportunities for remote social interaction, and offering encouragement and emotional support.

CU Solutions Group and the Michigan Credit Union League uses biweekly one-hour zoom calls for our 130 staff. We also use biweekly calls for our leadership team. Each division holds at least monthly zoom calls and all supervisors are encouraged to do daily “check-ins” whether by video call or email. We recently asked our employees how we were doing on meeting frequency and effectiveness and while we have many areas needing improvement, many staff were appreciative of the biweekly zoom calls that made them feel more connected and a part of the team, much more so than before we worked remotely.

While we have all moved quickly to enable and support remote work. All of us should be re-visiting the need for improved policies and practices for the long-term.

Larson, Vroman and Makarius suggest a wide spectrum of employee reactions to the lack of face-to-face supervisor and team interaction. Some staff need little support and others feel out of touch, unsupported, and under-appreciated. Like with all facets of management, leaders need to use a contingency approach and modify their supervision style based on each unique situation.

Reliance on primarily email exchanges vs face-to-face interaction can lead to misinterpreted messages that can create conflict. Workers need to be encouraged to use video calls as a preferred option so that facial expressions in communication can help avoid these misunderstandings.

Managers and co-workers should not underestimate the prevalence of loneliness and feelings of isolation. Extroverts may suffer more in the short-run, but over time, isolation can cause any employee to feel less “belonging” or connected. This can affect job satisfaction, even leading to possible departure from the company.

Distractions at home can be affected by family situations, workspace inadequacies, and in today’s world, whether kids are allowed back to school in the Fall. Credit unions should work quickly to adopt properly tolerant and understanding policies that are uniquely suited to the crisis environment. Longer-term, good policies that encourage the removal of and management of distractions will be critical.

Software like Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Webex are critical for daily check-ins and group collaboration. Calls should be regular and predictable and meeting agendas should be properly managed so that all feel a sense of accomplishment. This is obviously a challenge for any meeting, whether virtual or face-to-face.

Maximizing the use of cloud-based file sharing, email and video conferencing are basic necessities. However, care needs to be given to encouraging and enabling proper standards for reliable internet connections, good lighting for video calls, expertise in managing group chats and screen sharing and other such skills that need more universal attention. And for all of these technologies, appropriate data security is a crucial factor. All staff should be required to be properly equipped for productive work, whether tools are provided by the company or not.

Establishing the “rules of engagement” entails senior management agreeing to the frequency, means and ideal timing of communication for teams. For instance, videoconferencing is best for daily check-ins and other group meetings. Instant messaging is better for urgent communications. Do all staff have access to shared mobile numbers for this? File sharing protocols should also be established and understood by all. And in a remote work world, supervisors need to be clear about when and how they can be available for collaboration and support.

Providing opportunities for remote social interaction is also often overlooked. Structuring virtual social calls and even optional, small in-person gatherings with proper social distancing can go a long way toward addressing the need for social time. In these settings, even greater care should be given to focusing on non-work topics.  An option to consider is to schedule group meetings with an extra time allotment and allow for strictly non-work items on the front of the call. Another consideration is to send “care packages” in advance that could even be opened simultaneously at the beginning of the meeting.

Finally, offering encouragement and emotional support is something that leaders can and should do whether in-office or remotely. For some of us, this doesn’t necessarily come easy and it requires self-awareness, compassion, and structured thinking to accomplish it. A good way to achieve this is with short, one-on-one calls of even 10-15 minutes. Simple questions like, “How is this remote work situation working out for you so far?” and “Are we having the right frequency and format for meetings in the company?,” will invite input and opportunities for listening and learning.

As credit unions look beyond the current focus on crisis response focused on service and employee care, a longer-term and more strategic view should be considered for how the new normal of “Work-from-Home” can become an opportunity for improving the work culture, productivity and cost-effectiveness of the credit union. To do this will require the sharing of best practices, some experimentation and a lot of thoughtful collaboration as leaders.

One thing is for sure. We all recognize that talent acquisition and retention will require us all to watch these trends and plan for the policies and practices that will make credit unions and credit union organizations not just the preferred choice for members and customers, but also a great place to work for our talented employees.

Dave Adams

Dave Adams

Dave Adams is  President / Chief Executive Officer of CU Solutions Group. The  CUSG office is located in Livonia, Michigan. Mr. Adams joined the Michigan Credit Union League in August of ... Web: Details