Twenty years ago, I left my position at a large New York financial institution to move to a bank in the Midwest. Shortly thereafter, 9/11 happened.
I remember a colleague who was still in New York running operations at another large financial institution at the time telling me they were able to get their international banking operations back up and running in very short order. He confided that it had been difficult to convince people at his bank to run practice drills of their crisis plan leading up to that event. But because of their meticulous preparation, each manager understood his or her critical role in identifying what needed to happen and executing the plan quickly and confidently.
No business could have predicted 9/11 in 2001. And certainly no business could have predicted the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.
The lesson? We should all make the time to plan for the unexpected.
There’s No Going Back
None of us were really ready for the unique circumstances brought on by this pandemic. That’s okay. We made the necessary decisions to keep our customers and our employees as safe as possible as this crisis unfolded and stretched beyond the immediate response we thought would tide us over until the worst had passed. Now we have the opportunity to improve upon our initial response.
Famous author C.S. Lewis explained, “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”
It appears that legions of remote workers aren’t going to return to their in-person facilities for a while yet, so it might be time to gather what we’ve learned from our experience-to-date and make any necessary changes to write a new and better ending.
What Can We Improve?
- Culture. Challenges associated with building and maintaining a strong corporate culture and sense of belonging often top the list of excuses for not wanting to continue working from home. In truth, there is a lot we can do to maximize our connectedness during this time of separation. Tone and tenor of all our communications are more important than ever. Consider suggesting “rules” for different types of communication, such as using email (or texting) to provide basic information. Anything that requires some back-and-forth (more than one reply) would benefit from a phone conversation. I also suggest using the telephone to discuss sensitive topics that could be misinterpreted without the benefit of body language or tone of voice. Finally, we use Zoom or other similar technology for team meetings. Remember that face-to-face communication (via technology) is still a critical part of building chemistry and team rapport. I have actually found I have gotten to know some of my direct reports – and some of their direct reports – even better under remote work conditions because I’m able to meet with them more often without relying on traveling to each location to check in.
- Productivity. It would be unfair to compare a person’s potential productivity with their initial productivity as the workers were shuffled home with minimal tech support or office furniture while the same was happening to their children as schools closed abruptly back in March. Eventually, people seemed to settle into their work-from-home routines, often becoming more efficient than ever as they figured things out. The truth is that an unproductive employee will be unproductive under any circumstances. Don’t blame the location. If a typically good performer suddenly struggles at home, connect with them to determine where their pain points are impeding their work to help remove any obstacles. Then focus on providing specific expectations, such as “Please send me this report by Friday at Noon.” We encouraged department leaders to hold weekly team meetings via zoom to keep in touch and offer accountability to their coworkers. It’s also important to involve our employees in business planning, establishing goals, and setting strategy.
- Flexibility. It is time to let go of the demand that employees work 8 hours in a row. Focus on managing the work, not people’s time. Use a daily “hit list” to stay on track. We all know how much we can get done in a day or week. Be realistic with an active “to do list.” Then let your workers figure out how to get it all done on their own schedule. State Bank of Cross Plains has actually had that same policy prior to the pandemic, whenever possible. In my own case, I have found that taking a break to exercise in the middle of my day has made me more focused and comfortable than when I worked out before or after my work day. My back can get sore from sitting long stretches, so this new routine has actually enabled me to be more productive despite working a non-traditional schedule. A mid-day workout was rarely an option when I had to wear a suit all day.
- Customer Experience. Even though taking care of our customers may be done differently than before the pandemic, it is still extremely important and very viable to do it effectively. Customers are working remotely, too. While we are a very large, relationship-oriented organization, our bankers have learned to leverage technology to provide a personalized and caring experience for the customer. We have added technology – and continue to do so – to make it more convenient, reliable, and secure for our customers and associates to interact. Other industries have driven this model, and it is now considered "table stakes" to strive for this type of operation. By blending traditional relationship management and innovation, we are able to offer an enhanced customer experience. There's no going back.
Keeping the Best, Getting Rid of the Rest
Not all aspects of remote work have been bad for business. Employees across the country are reporting more satisfaction, while many customers have been forced to connect with their favorite businesses in ways that already existed but were slow to take root.
In our case, the bank surveyed our employees and our customers for feedback on what was working and what resulted in frustration. The response was overwhelmingly positive, with more than 95 percent of our customers giving us the thumbs up. That said, this experience forced some people to “rip the bandage off” to learn some of the technology people were initially reluctant to embrace. Ironically, they often found these interactions more convenient.
Be Prepared for What Comes Next
The reality of this experience taught us all to plan for the unexpected. Here are some tips for making sure you are ready next time the world as we know it goes haywire:
- Document your current situation. Use this opportunity to write down and capture what can and should be done if a similar scenario presents itself in the future. Don’t assume you will remember all the details 5+ years from now.
- Tap into your employees for feedback. Don’t assume everything went well because nobody shared their frustrations. Ask. Then use that information wisely.
- Check in with your customers. You may discover your customers don’t want to return to business as usual. There might be some pieces of this experience that should and will stick around for the long haul.
- Practice your crisis plan. This could be as simple as sitting around a table reviewing each department’s needs in a variety of situations or as elaborate as a fully staged practice run. You will undoubtedly find holes in the plan that were not anticipated without fleshing out the document in a realistic setting.
The banking industry is luckier than most thanks to the fact that we are required (regulated) to have many of these plans in place to reduce risk. We benefited from that early planning and preparation. Take steps now to prepare your business for next time and maximize the opportunity currently available as we continue to work remotely at many places.