By Hannah Flanders
Following one of the deadliest pandemics the world has seen, U.S. government officials, businesses, and individuals alike have naturally begun to reassess what safe health practices look like. In banks throughout Wisconsin, this is certainly no different. From plexiglass to constant reminders to sanitize, cover your mouth, and stay home when you are sick — these lessons aren’t a byproduct of the COVID-19 pandemic but rather knowledge that has subtly been around us this whole time without us really noticing.
From buffet sneeze guards to “employees must wash hands before returning to work” signs, safe health practices were evident in public spaces long before COVID. What the pandemic did bring about, however, was the general public’s awareness to safety and health practices.
At the onset of the pandemic, bankers across Wisconsin assembled plexiglass screens and masked up for the protection of themselves, their coworkers, and every customer. Unlike before, health protocols were broadcasted on the news, posted on doors, and mentioned at every meeting. This hyperawareness, while effective in helping stop the spread, has highlighted specific efforts needed to accommodate the safety of every member of the community.
“Often times, customer ‘protocols’ are framed negatively in the eye of the customer,” says Mike Parnon, architect at Brookfield-based BrandPoint Design. “It is important that banks are able to find a balance in improving overall customer experience by conveying their attentiveness to both financial and physical health.”
Mandates set in place during COVID at the state and federal level stressed the importance of complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). This civil rights law, and code for contractors, emphasizes the accessibility of public spaces. The pandemic highlighted for businesses throughout the state the need to further prioritize safe, accessible spaces for all.
Be it expanding mobile banking applications, so customers have access to their money wherever, or integrating more private spaces into bank designs — Wisconsin banks have taken full advantage of these COVID-19-related constraints to create opportunities for their customers.
“The health, safety, and well-being of our employees, customers, and community will always be a top priority for Bank First,” said Rachel Oakes, marketing communications manager at Bank First in Manitowoc. “While office cleanliness and sanitation were always a part of our procedures, COVID has redefined many things. We will continue enhanced sanitation procedures and offer hand sanitizer at our offices.”
During the peak of the pandemic in 2020, banks throughout the state established COVID committees tasked with monitoring, planning, and communicating critical information related to COVID-related guidance onto bank employees and customers. As guidance, even today, continues to evolve, one thing remains the same — daily cleaning and sanitation of all workstations and high-contact surfaces continues to be implemented at most Wisconsin banks.
While some procedures have been eradicated since early 2020, many of them have provided opportunities to further invest in the interest of both the customer and bank employees. “There is a greater awareness of health and public safety and [Bank First] has found that staff and guests are very understanding of any continued procedures and are thankful to see the end of some stricter protocols.” added Oakes.
Since the onset of COVID, community areas in bank branches have shifted their look and feel as well. While many areas remain open for additional seating, coffee and snack stations have either closed or shifted to individually packaged items. In addition, some banks, such as National Bank of Commerce in Superior, have closed their restrooms to the public unless specifically requested by a branch.
“National Bank of Commerce’s approach to protect our associates, customers, and the community, driven by our Business Continuity Plan, helped inform our desire to do what is right for our community,” said Lindsey Growette Stingle, senior vice president — human resources at National Bank of Commerce. “I believe that our associates have adapted well to the ever-changing environment and have shown a willingness to be flexible with the ultimate priority being the safety of their fellow associates, customers, and the community.”
As banks continue to balance differing customer needs in terms of health and safety in their offices, many continue to offer optional protection measures. “At National Bank of Commerce, hand sanitizer, masks, and (requested) rapid tests are still available to all associates,” says Growette Stingle. Additionally, many other Wisconsin banks continue to offer plexiglass shields at teller lines for bankers and customers who wish to use them and have incorporated remote options — either on a case-by-case basis or for those whose position allows.
“Educating the customer is critical in an institution with environmental changes,” states Parnon. “Finding productive ways to inform clients of [the bank’s] position regarding health, safety, comfort, and service is the first step in achieving good practices.”
While banks continue to update their COVID-related guidelines for both their staff and customers, creating safe and healthy spaces for community members has always been a priority for Wisconsin banks. While this may mean the sanitation of pens or the closure of specific areas, it is all done with the best interest of the community in mind.
Although the number of COVID cases throughout the state continues to decrease, banks carry on their commitment to their communities in everything they do. While these positive health-related activities are far from unheard of (even pre-COVID), the heightened public awareness of safe, hygienic spaces caused by the pandemic has allowed room for more solutions that encourage both accessibility and connection.