Just as the pandemic has seen banks and credit unions reevaluate and accelerate the technology used by customers, shifts in how and where branch and back–office staff do their jobs have added another layer of complexity to banks’ and credit unions’ technology strategies.
“[In] a pandemic, the inefficiencies of a business, of a bank – think of how restaurants have had to pivot, how hospitals have had to pivot – those cracks of inefficiencies, those cracks of manual processes, those cracks that are unanticipated really come to light,” said Lisa Oliver, president and CEO of The Cooperative Bank of Cape Cod. “In addition to ensuring that we’re supplying tech-enabled banking, we also need to look at how we provide tech-enabled work processes internally for our employees.”
A recent survey of bank branch employees by Dedham-based Reflexis, part of Zebra Technologies, found that branch employees have spent more time on administrative tasks not related to servicing customers compared to the previous year, with 41 percent of respondents from North America saying they had spent eight hours or more on non-customer-facing tasks.
Brian Wallace, Reflexis’ general manager of banking, said the results were not surprising given the digital migration and changing roles experienced at banks during the pandemic. But the survey also found that banks often do not have centralized systems for orchestrating workflow assignments in branches.
Email was the most common way that tasks were assigned and managed, with 40 percent of branch employees receiving direction that way, followed by 28 percent who used a customer relationship management tool and 14 percent who used an Excel spreadsheet.
Tech Upgrades Aid Staff
Banks have been automating routine tasks over the past 10 years, said Ben Craigie, director of compliance and training at the Massachusetts Bankers Association. Banking regulations have driven some of that automation, he said, particularly in mortgage lending.
“If something new comes up, [banks] leverage technology for more efficiency in processing and then move into automated processes,” Craigie said.
He pointed to the Paycheck Protection Program as an example of how some banks in the early weeks processed applications manually before using more automated systems to handle the heavy loan volumes.
“Any bank, whether a small financial institution or the big banks, they all leverage technology pretty creatively,” Craigie said.
Technology is not the only resource for improving manual processes, either. For bank employees looking for answers to compliance-related questions, a company called Compliance Alliance provides a 24-hour hotline for banks to access, reducing the time needed for research or to seek out other experts, who might not be available.
Employees also want to see processes improve, with many improvements offering ways to reduce stress. The Cooperative Bank of Cape Cod does an employee engagement survey every 18 months. While employees praised how The Coop had managed the pandemic during the most recent survey, they also pointed to areas where the bank could improve, from ideas for running more efficient meetings to automating manual tasks.
“When your system gets stressed, for whatever reason, you really begin to take a step back and look at manual processes and efficiencies,” Oliver said. “So, when I talk about technology and the next focus on how we serve clients, that technology is really going to continue to expand into how do we actually do our day-to-day job.”
Oliver said that the pandemic has accelerated the need to focus on many of these processes by about three years. Core providers and fintechs will provide some of the solutions, she said, and using robotic tools or artificial intelligence for these tasks will allow employees to do more impactful, customer-related work.
Fintech Solutions Include Automation
Some products already exist to fill these needs.
Wallace, with Reflexis, said centralized bank workforce management tools like the one his company sells save staff time by not having to manage tasks through email. They also let management track how employees use their time. As the nature of branch banking evolves, he said, banks will be better able to manage the time needed to coach employees and prepare them for changing responsibilities.
“Branch employees are having to migrate from this inbound to now this outbound engagement, which means the roles and nature of their work is changing,” Wallace said. “Coaching your employees…is most critically important when you’re trying to change the behavior and potentially have different roles with universal bankers and tellers and increased outbound engagements.”
Portland, Maine-based Constant AI said it’s seeing more interest in its loss-mitigation platform that automates requests to modify loans, particularly auto and consumer loans, eliminating the need for back–office staff to take hours or days to work on customer requests.
“We’re seeing that this is the year that many [banks and credit unions] are willing to dive into back–office digitization that connects customers to that back office, eliminating all that back and forth that comes with manual servicing,” said Catherine York Powers, Constant AI’s CEO.
Automating a back–office process like loss mitigation helps banks and credit unions retain customers, York Powers added, while also improving compliance.
“Every step is auditable, traceable,” York Powers aid. “When you have a manual process, paper-based process and a number of hands touching that over various departments, you’re actually prone to more human error.”