Littleton-based Workers Credit Union has opened PlanIt locations in Lowell (pictured), Hudson and Worcester featuring self-service technology, including an interactive hologram named Olivia, and opportunities for financial wellness meetings with branch staff. Photo courtesy of Workers Credit Union

From bank mergers and technology to the pandemic and changing consumer behaviors, multiple forces continue to alter the role of traditional brick-and-mortar branches in banking.

Yet multiple studies show that customers still want branches in their communities. As the industry continues to adjust to changes, banks and credit unions have looked at ways to adjust the roles of branch employees and how they interact with customers.

“My belief is that we’ve been witnessing the death of the service economy and looking at, whether we realize it or not, the birth of the value economy or the value workforce,” said Peter Rice, chief banking officer at Littleton-based Workers Credit Union. “Things are changing, and people are looking for experiences, both members and employees.”

With financial technology and automation likely to have an even greater role in banking in the coming years, rethinking opportunities for branch staff could also help prepare employees for a changing economy.

In recent report commissioned by Gov. Charlie Baker about the future of work, McKinsey & Co. projected that between 300,000 and 400,000 Massachusetts workers, including those in the banking industry, will go through a job transition or need to learn new skills by 2030 because of shifts in sectors or occupations.

An estimated 8,000 of these job transitions could involve tellers, according to the report, “Preparing for the Future of Work in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

Staff Retention

Even before the pandemic accelerated customers’ use of digital banking tools, transactions inside branches had decreased, leading banks to reduce their footprints. But closed branches don’t always mean lost employees.

Berkshire Bank has closed more than 40 branches in recent years, including 15 so far this year. But the bank has been able to retain all branch employees, said Tami Gunsch, Berkshire Bank’s senior executive vice president and head of consumer banking.

When a branch closes, employees are given training opportunities to move into other positions, including operations and back-office jobs, Gunsch said. When going through branch consolidations, Berkshire keeps job openings in other parts of the bank available so branch staff can apply.

While some of Berkshire branches still have traditional teller roles, the bank has also adopted a type of branch employee known in the industry as the universal banker, or what Berkshire calls universal financial services representatives.

“They are trained on a wide variety of customer service from an operations perspective,” Gunsch said. “They really serve as a customer’s main point for providing a variety of financial solutions.”

Along with providing teller services, opening accounts and assisting with consumer lending, the employees also learn how to become “digital ambassadors,” she said, an increasingly important skill to help customers navigate how to use bank technology.

Technology has created other roles as well, with some employees working as the tellers that help customers using interactive teller machines.

During the branch consolidation, Berkshire Bank retained over 95 percent of customer deposits and saw customer satisfaction and net promoter scores improve, Gunsch said, a result she attributed in part to another role the bank has created for its MyBanker program, which provides personalized services to customers.

Berkshire has 19 employees in the MyBanker roles, and these staff members contacted customers before the branch closings to discuss the consolidation and the customers’ options. The bank is looking to expand the program to 40 to 50 employees by 2023.

“As customer behavior is changing, some customers still like the branch, some customers like the digital banking, but all customers want that personal touch, that relationship manager approach,” Gunsch said.

Traditional Roles Blurred

As transaction activity continued to decline at branches, Bridgewater Savings Bank wanted to find a way to reduce the number of people needed at branches while still having employees who could cover tasks both in the lobby and the backrooms, said Joe Mitchell, senior vice president and senior retail banking officer at what is now known as Bluestone Bank following the merger of Bridgewater Savings Bank and Mansfield Bank.

The bank started exploring the universal banker role about eight years ago and about four years ago started transitioning employees to be able to perform multiple tasks within the branch.

Diane McLaughlin

“The whole purpose of this blurring of traditional bank roles is to enhance the customer experience,” said Meg McIsaac, president of Bluestone Bank. “So that when they come in, they’re not shuttled as before from shuttle line to customer service and then perhaps waiting for half an hour for a CSR to free up.”

Bluestone Bank has three levels of universal bankers. Someone with no experience will join the bank as a universal banker trainee. These employees can be promoted after about six months or to a year to a universal banker, who can then reach the level of senior universal bankers. While universal bankers do not supervise employees, they have the skills need to run all other aspects of the branch.

Rick Fisher, Bluestone Bank’s chief operating officer, said not all branch employees were comfortable with the universal banker role when the bank started transitioning, so some of these employees moved into back-office jobs that required skill sets similar to ones they already had.

Mitchell said the bank has high expectations when interviewing for universal bankers, even using a panel interview to see the candidate’s comfort level when speaking with a group of people. Each promotion comes with a significant increase in compensation, Mitchell said, and the bank does not limit the number of employees who can reach the senior universal banker level.

“Not only is it important for the way we interact with our customers, but it’s been a benefit for the younger employees coming in who want to see some sort of career path,” McIsaac added. “They want to feel like they’re putting effort in; they’re being acknowledged; they’re being rewarded financially and with more responsibilities.”

Controlling Their Destiny

Rice joined Workers Credit Union three years ago and began exploring how branch staff could add value to members’ experiences.

“There’s a kind of implicit understanding in membership that engagement is the best way to get the most out of your membership,” he said.

The credit union ended up focusing on the role staff could have in supporting the goal of providing financial wellness services for members, Rice said, to help remove stigmas associated with talking about money and make financial services more inclusive.

Frontline employees became certified financial wellness coaches, and 25 percent of branch visits are now financial wellness appointments, with 16 percent with members making follow-up meetings.

The credit union has opened new “PlanIt” branches that focus on the financial wellness opportunities while giving members self-service opportunities for transactions, including an ITM and an interactive hologram for frequently asked questions.

The approach has also benefited employees, Rice said. The credit union has no branch managers, with branch employees having similar ranks in a collaborative model. After five years, employees can decide whether they want to specialize in another area of the credit union.

“Now they’re collecting experiences rather than just serving time and waiting for the right moment – they feel more in control over their own career destiny,” Rice said. “They have the ability to feel like their progressing in their own development and … they’re also seeing the returns, because they can help serve the member in a more complete way.”

Branch Staff Adapt to Changing Industry

by Diane McLaughlin time to read: 5 min