A Look at Reopening Banks

For many bankers, it has been more than a year since they have seen a free flow of foot traffic through their doors. Some continue to work remotely, while others navigate the limited capacity at their branch, interacting with a fraction of the community that used to fill the space. With banks at various stages of operation during what feels like a sprint toward the end of this crisis, many are wondering what reopening will look like and how the pandemic will impact this process, even after the threat of the virus recedes. 

Fine Lines and Looser Limits 

For banks that have one branch, reopening might be a matter of determining what will work best for the community. TJ Minnehan, president of Bank of Kaukauna, has said his bank has created a "by-appointment" model to control the flow of people since the start of the shutdown. Strategically limiting who comes in and out allows for the bank to still welcome their customers while strengthening safety guidelines. 

“We’re a one-shop location, so we’ve taken as much caution as we can to avoid a massive outbreak inside of our institution,” said Minnehan. “Through all of this, that was at the front of mind for us. If we had an internal massive outbreak, we would have found ourselves in a position that would have challenged us for a period of time while people recovered.” 

The conversations at Bank of Kaukauna currently peg them at a tentative reopening date of June 1 to allow free-flow traffic back into the branch. Minnehan attributes this date to the mask mandate’s length of enforceability combined with the number of people that will likely be fully vaccinated by this time. The concern for banks that have multiple locations in various parts of the state, however, creates a slightly different story.  

“Our Adams and Marquette offices have been open-lobby since mid-year 2020, and our Dane County lobbies were re-established as a choice for clients in early March,” said Steve Peotter, president and CEO of One Community Bank. “It has been an interesting mix as we evaluated our COVID posture in geographically distinct communities.” 

Many bankers noted that managing through this crisis has not been so much about closing the bank as it has been controlling the flow of people in and out of lobbies. Banks with multiple locations face the question of opening their branches all at once or reopening each depending on what the COVID data shows for each community. Dan Riebe, executive vice president of Frandsen Bank & Trust, Eau Claire, believes reopening should be considered on a per-branch basis.  

“I think we continuously have to recognize that every location is a little bit different as far as how this is impacting them and how their community is reacting,” Riebe said. “Some of the steps that I take here in Eau Claire might not be a good fit for someone in Madison or Milwaukee. You have to look at your community, look at the cases, and ask what others are doing in the area and that will work best.” 

Riebe’s bank went to drive-up only in March of 2020 and stayed that way until they opened their lobbies once again on April 1. With the bank being commercial, he noted that lobby traffic was never much of an issue for them, even before the pandemic. Factors like this, he added, should be considered when banks reopen and what restrictions should be set. 

In contrast, Minnehan noted that Bank of Kaukauna has a slightly older customer base on average. Looking at the combined risk that the virus has to their staff and to their customers, restricting access to lobbies early on seemed like the right thing to do. Options are still available for those looking to meet in person by setting up an appointment, and the drive-ups continue to operate with no issues. 

“The hard part is, we want to get back to seeing our customers and doing business face to face while doing it safely, but I don’t want to turn my staff into the mask police,” said Minnehan. “That seems like a place where you can have a rub with customers, and it seems avoidable. I think people are very understanding that we have to just keep taking the steps that are necessary to keep everyone safe. It’s a fine line that we’re all working with.” 

Keeping the Safety of Staff in Mind 

It goes without saying that the ‘when’ of reopening is only one part of a complex process. The other major element impacting banks’ decisions to open their doors is the ‘how.’ 

“The safety of our staff, our clients, and our community are paramount in terms of importance,” Riebe said. “Being able to operate and deliver to our clients are important as well. We can’t eliminate risk, but we get paid to manage risk.” 

According to the bankers, determining the best way to reopen or expand capacity can often be as simple as asking your staff how comfortable they are with certain options. For many, maintaining constant communication was a critical part of getting through the worst of the pandemic. 

“Since the COVID journey started, we have been very communicative with our team,” Peotter said. “We ask for feedback in a very formalized way through anonymous surveys, we engage in discussion regarding things like work-life balance, we make accommodations for our people to provide at-home care for taking care of children when school was paused. We were very collaborative and very transparent in the attempt to determine what the correct course of action was for all of us.” 

At the same time, it may not always be the basic question of whether someone is comfortable with a higher number of people in the building, Riebe added. He said that for those employees who never stopped working at the branches, a year of wearing masks for over eight hours each day has not become any more comfortable. This might require a further step toward alleviating the stress that comes with being open while these restrictions are in place. 

“Wearing a mask for eight hours is miserable,” said Riebe. “Even at the beginning, we’ve set time aside for our staff, especially at the teller line, to try and get five or ten minutes every hour in a private office to take their mask off. The teller lines are the hot points in terms of staff that have to be regularly masked, so we want to make their lives as easy as possible.” 

Each banker addressed the fact that although they would love to do away with masks, they don’t see this as an immediate option for the safety of their staff and community.  

“It’ll be nice to get rid of the masks and not have to worry about this,” said Minnehan. “But I have a feeling this is something we’ll have to contend with for the foreseeable future in terms of preventive action. Whatever the new version of normal may end up being, I would like to think we’re not too far off from doing away with masks and social distancing. I don’t think it’s on the horizon, but I think it’s inevitable.” 

The good news is that they have found the majority of their customers are more than okay with restrictions put in place and are simply happy to step into their bank again. It’s a positive sign that banks will likely not have to worry about customers questioning continued safety guidelines.  

“Clients who have chosen to use lobbies for their banking needs have been wonderful to work with,” said Peotter. “Everyone is very understanding of the various safety protocols across different organizations, and our colleagues are very comfortable providing those services given the barriers, social distancing, and mask requirements inside the banks. I think this shows really great potential for whatever comes next.” 

A New Look for Banks 

Remote work, plexiglass barriers, and new technologies have been just a few of the ways banks have changed from the inside out. The thought of returning to full capacity has caused many to ask if these innovations are here for good or if their use in banks is set to expire. 

Peotter stated that prior to the pandemic, he firmly believed that people working together in person at the banks was the best possible thing for both colleagues and clients. He has since changed his perspective and believes that allowing a mix of work-from-home and work-from-office allows for a balanced life without sacrificing any of the quality service and teamwork.  

“We are proud to continue offering a hybrid approach to our colleagues to have a mix of work-from-home and work-from-office,” said Peotter. “There are some colleagues we have not seen in the office since mid-March of 2020, and we are more than confident that those colleagues continue to provide great service to clients and support for each other.” 

Aside from employee productivity, another concern for remote work was uncertainty regarding the safety and reliability of technology. It became common for banks to consider upgrades in several areas as time in the pandemic strung on, and this has resulted in a greater change than the capability to work from home more effectively. 

“We were introduced to new technology partners and things that we feel will really benefit us as time goes on, just in terms of digital applications and more efficient ways to handle documents that are faster, safer, and more user-friendly for both us and the customer,” said Minnehan. “There were certainly many silver linings despite a lot of the damage that’s been caused.”  

As a result of 2020, Bank of Kaukauna is finalizing a new mortgage loan originating system that was not anticipated to be done until 2023. The technology that banks had on their radar for three, four, five-plus years in the future are quickly becoming a reality to the changing infrastructure of financial institutions. 

So, if you stop by a neighboring bank a year or two from now, you might see slightly fewer employees here and there and a few more technological advances. The most noticeable change, however, might be one that’s a little harder to miss.  

Plexiglass barriers have become a necessity for workers speaking with multiple people each day, but the end of this crisis might not end with Reagan’s famous lines to Mr. Gorbachev. The overall safety that comes with these barriers has caused many bankers to want the wall kept up indefinitely rather than torn down.  

“Regardless of COVID, if we think the dividers are effective in preventing our staff from even getting the cold or the flu, there’s a good chance we’ll keep those, if not just because of the anecdotal evidence,” said Riebe. 

When asked about the anecdote he was referencing, Riebe emphasized an interesting response he has heard which he believes may point to a heightened awareness of what is being spread indoors, no matter where you might be. 

“After the dividers are getting cleaned, it's not uncommon to hear ‘I never realized all this was coming through to the teller counter every day.’ Now that it’s visible, I think people have become a lot more conscious of their surroundings in that way. This might just be an obvious safety technique that we keep in perpetuity.” 

As your bank considers the prospects of reopening individual branches, it will likely be a process that reviews the considerations of colleagues and customers. Reopening will most likely include going over the data in your community, managing risk, and keeping flexible options available for both customers and employees who are feeling ill. 

“When this started, we didn’t know what the future held,” said Minnehan. “We still don’t. But we do what we can, hours through the night and the weekend, because we have a community that is counting on us. So here we are, making a difference.”  

By, Alex Paniagua