Words can't fully capture the reverberations of the coronavirus pandemic. It seems that with each passing day, there's a new development, as health officials work tirelessly to devise medicals solutions and people around the world contend with the social and economic impact of the virus. While there have been several encouraging discoveries, the sobering reality is that businesses by the tens of millions find themselves between a rock and hard place, balancing the service needs of their customers with the health and well-being of their staff.
This juggling act hasn't been easy on anyone – the banking industry included, as financial institutions are venturing into uncharted territory.
"The magnitude of coronavirus became more fully understood in March."
Although coronavirus began receiving U.S. media attention back in January, it really wasn't until early to mid-March that the severity of the crisis became more fully understood and industries like banking began to respond – some quicker and more aggressively than others. Case in point was JPMorgan Chase. The financial services conglomerate announced it would close at least 20% of its 5,000 branches effective March 19, as reported by The Wall Street Journal. With half of these closures based in New York City, they proved to be prophetic, as, according to the most recent figures available from Johns Hopkins University, there are now more than 100,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in New York City and more than 15,000 deaths.
Right around the same time, Truist Financial Corporation and PNC Financial Services Group both announced that they would restrict branch access to drive-thrus and lobby appointments pre-arranged online or by phone.
Stephen Steinour, CEO of Huntington Bancshares Inc., told the Journal, "We were having several dozen people in our branch lobbies, and we couldn't control it. We had customers say they didn't feel safe with that kind of crowd." Ultimately his institution's response was undertaken in their best interest .
Customers' reticence, given the highly contagious nature of the virus and potentially serious health consequences, is understandable. However the simple fact remains: Even with widespread "stay-at-home" orders, financial transactions have not ceased fully and FIs are still considered "essential" businesses, allowing them to remain open. This has ramifications for customers and employees alike, which Stienour points out must always remain in balance. In scrambling to make operational adjustments to ensure service continuity for fearful customers, FIs must also factor in the needs of key branch staff who themselves are risking their health.
How can financial institutions strike a balance
While remaining open as essential businesses, many financial institutions have listened to the science for the sake of customers and employees, and erred toward caution: temporarily closing branches, reducing business hours or restricting walk-in traffic, forcing employees experiencing symptoms to stay home; following in the footsteps of early industry initiators. This has minimized risk, but ultimately not eliminated it.
Banking analyst Dick Bove told the Journal that institutions must proceed with caution and be strategic with closures, as they can easily lead to panic and distrust from customers. On the flip side, overly optimistic approaches don't do favors for anyone. But even with the adoption of recommended protocol, risk has become part of everyday life.
In Washington State, the first part of the country that experienced a rash of coronavirus cases, a number of tellers for a well-known FI were forced to call out sick after experiencing flu-like symptoms, a branch employee told the Journal.
In a statement, the FI said it was "following national- and local-government-issued guidelines, and we are providing regular updates to our employees as the situation evolves." Nevertheless, this is not a scenario most banks and credit unions would welcome.
What to do for employees
The good news: Banks and credit unions have proven to be as proactive about keeping their staff safe as they are their customers. More of them every day are using telework technologies that enable personnel to work from home. FIs are also limiting how many people can be inside a branch at once to reduce employee exposure. Lastly, and importantly, they are doing the right thing in amplifying benefits during this difficult time, including bonuses to front-line employees, extra time off to accommodate ill family members, financial assistance with child care and more, according to American Banker.
These benefits are critical for FIs to keep front of mind since they are, by nature, discretionary and a separate track from following scientific recommendations to minimize risk of infection and exposure. Sure, you can make strides to ensure your branches, drive-thus and service equipment are safe and disinfected, but the fear for staff may remain regardless of actual risk. Little efforts to show front-line staff are appreciated and supported beyond simply providing a safe work environment can go a long way towards assuaging this residual fear.
If there are any takeaways from the coronavirus crises, perhaps the biggest is the importance of balance. It's critical to the physical and mental well-being of your customers as well as your staff. BranchServ can provide you with the tools and perspective you need to make this tumultuous time go more smoothly. We're not only service leaders, we're thought leaders, too. Contact us today to learn more.