Mutual Benefits, Miles Apart: WI Banking Industry Addressing Challenges, Opportunities in Remote Work

Update: Efforts to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus have meant many more workers than usual (including bankers) are working remotely. WBA is republishing this August 2018 article with actionable advice and examples for banks as they make the transition to remote work.

Eric Walters' morning commute only takes him a few minutes, even though his job is over 300 miles away. Walters, vice president of credit administration at Madison-based Settlers bank, is among the growing number of bankers who work remotely on a regular basis. He has been working remotely since February 2011, when his family needed to relocate from Madison to Marquette, Mich. Despite only working for Settlers for a year and a half, Walters decided to pursue telecommuting as a way to keep his role with the bank. He proposed the arrangement to his manager and the bank's executive team. "They ran with it, and I was as surprised as anyone!" Walters said. "The transition worked so well, it's now been seven and a half years of working remote, and I love it." 

Walters is one of the estimated nine million Americans working from home at least half-time (2.9 percent of the total U.S. labor force). That number rises dramatically when you include occasional remote work—43 percent of American employees reported working remotely in 2016. As more and more companies begin offering remote work opportunities as an employee benefit, the banking industry will need to adapt its historically conservative stance on the issue in order to attract and retain top talent. Adopting a more permissive stance on working remotely provides tangible benefits for both the bank and its employees, so long as both parties work to address three key challenges.

Bank Point-of-View

Banks that are considering allowing remote work must weigh the potential risks—including employee productivity and security concerns—against one major benefit: standing out in the talent market. "We're going to have to become much more creative and flexible in offering telecommuting, especially with the millennials and the shortage of employees, if we want to attract and retain quality employees," said Sue Mares, senior vice president – human resources/administration, Premier Community Bank, Marion. "This is one of the benefits they are looking for when searching for a job." And they're finding it. A 2017 Deloitte survey found 64 percent of millennials report having "flexible locations," up from 21 percent in 2016

In today's tight labor market, it can be especially difficult for employers to attract talent to rural areas. "It gives us the opportunity to attract candidates who would not have otherwise applied, or to retain employees because of that opportunity," said Renee Peterson, talent acquisition and development officer at Horicon Bank. Other benefits for banks that permit remote work include a reduced need for expensive office space, less wasted "windshield time" for employees with long commutes, and staff involvement in communities and markets where the bank currently doesn't have a presence but may want to enter in the future.

One of the primary barriers banks face to implementing more robust remote work policies is the very nature of being a service industry. "It's a little more difficult in the banking environment to implement telecommuting for all employees because of the fact that we are a financial services organization," said Mares. "For many of our positions, we need to be in front of our customers to portray our image that we are here to serve them." Many customer-facing positions in banking are difficult—if not impossible—to perform well outside of a branch. "Thinking about banking and how much we assist our customers in person, people have the mindset that you need to be in a branch, and sometimes that's true but not always," Peterson explained. "There just aren't as many positions in banking where someone could work remotely."

Staff Perspective

For the employee, working remotely provides flexibility and demonstrates the bank's confidence in them. The additional autonomy allows the employee to balance family, social, and work obligations, which doesn't require working outside the office on a regular basis. In fact, the Gallup report found most individuals who report working remotely do so infrequently—25 percent say they work remotely less than 20 percent of the time, and 20 percent say it's between 20 and 40 percent. That flexibility is important to a growing number of workers, as well. Over half of the employees surveyed by Gallup (53 percent) say a role that allows them to have greater work-life balance is "very important" to them when considering whether to take a new job. 

Another significant benefit to the employee is the empowerment that comes with the bank's demonstration of trust. "You know that the institution has to trust you on a fairly substantial level to allow you to work remotely, both with respect to productivity and data security. Having that trust is a very big appreciative factor for me," said Walters. "It shows the bank is willing to grow with me. When you're looking at whether your employer values you, that's a huge impact."

One unique challenge telecommuters face is difficulty staying connected to other staff and the culture of the bank. While Walters returns to Madison every four or five months for an on-site day, it's not a substitute for the many social interactions coworkers have that leads to feeling connected. "One way to make remote staff feel connected is using video conferencing tools," he said. "Being able to see the other person makes you feel like you're there."

Key Challenges to Address

In order to implement remote work successfully, banks and their employees must work together to overcome three primary challenges, each of which should be addressed in the bank's formal policy (if there is one). The first challenge is to clearly define "remote work" and set guidelines for where and when employees may choose to work outside the office. "Have clear guidelines and expectations," Peterson advised. "When you're rolling out something like this, you need to have the qualifications and follow-up laid out. That makes it easier to decide what positions and employees can work remotely." When considering this question, bank leadership should remember that "working remotely" could mean working from a different branch location than the rest of that employee's department, for example. One bank responding to a recent WBA survey said they require employees to have a home office or dedicated workspace in order to work remotely. Another supplies tablets that allow employees to securely connect to their in-branch workstations. The bank and employee must determine which of the many types of remote work are the best fit for their situation. 

Another challenge is identifying the appropriate roles and individuals for remote work. "Make sure that the job requirements, responsibilities, and duties are compatible with working from a different site and still allow the employee to be efficient and productive, and that the employee is a good fit for working remotely," Mares advised. Some employees may be in a role compatible for telecommuting, but lack the personality or work style to do so successfully. Conversely, some employees thrive working remotely and find they are less distracted outside the office. "If the employee is happy working remotely or from another branch location, they will work more efficiently," said Mares. "It's not for every employee, but we have seen positive results with the ones that we have provided this benefit." 

Clear expectations and concrete goals will help both the bank and employee measure productivity to determine if telecommuting is effective. "When someone is going to work remotely, they must have regular communication with their manager to ensure tasks are completed by their deadline," said Peterson. Walters recommends beginning the remote work program with an employee who has a "history of high performance and motivation," he said. "You then have a productivity baseline to measure from." 

One major obstacle for telecommuting in the banking industry is the critical need for security. Multifactor authentication, bank-provided electronic devices, and strict security protocols can help mitigate those risks. In addition, for many banking positions, an electronic filing system at the bank is the only way to make telecommuting feasible with regards to data protection. Compliance and IT personnel should be directly involved in rolling out any remote work practices at the bank. 

Despite the challenges telecommuting presents, Walters believes it's worth the process of trying. "The bank should absolutely consider it, but it won't be for everyone," he said. "If it isn't working, terminate the remote work option for that employee and move on." Ultimately, successful telecommuting relies on the bank and employee working together. "You want it to be a mutually beneficial relationship," said Walters. "There has to be open communication between the employee and the bank in order to reach that balance."

By, Amber Seitz