Many banks and credit unions are planning for a gradual reopening of their physical offices and branches as the coronavirus pandemic begins to wane in Massachusetts.

As quickly as banks and credit unions transformed their operations in response to the coronavirus pandemicreopening branch lobbies will likely not happen with the same speed. 

Were doing a lot of preparation now on how do we transition back to what will become the new normal, said Joe Campanelli, president and CEO of Needham BankClearly, its not going be a switch we just flip as a society and off we go. 

While designated as essential businesses, Massachusetts banks and credit unions have not operated in a businessasusual environment since early MarchAfter weeks of serving customers at drive-up windows, by appointment and even in parking lots, financial institutions must now figure out their new normal: How to provide financial services while trying to keep customers and employees safe from COVID-19. 

Will Digital Dominate? 

Not all customers will need to return to branches. Changing customer expectations and competition from financial technology firms had led many banks and credit unions in recent years to invest in online and mobile banking tools. Technology usage has increased across all age groups since the start of the pandemic, said Ron McLean, president and CEO of regional credit union trade group Cooperative Credit Union Association.  

The push toward online technology is going to carry over for a long time, McLean said. We are not expecting when the economy opens up that its going to go back to the way it was pre-pandemic. 

Campanelli said Needham Bank has seen a 500 percent increase in customers using remote image capture since the start of the pandemic. 

A study conducted in April by Boston Consulting Group also showed an increased use of online banking tools. According to the study, 42 percent of U.S. survey respondents had used mobile apps more frequently in the past three weeks compared to last year, and 29 percent had used online tools more frequently. 

The survey also showed that 16 percent of U.S. respondents planned to visit branches less frequently or not at all after the crisis ends. 

But banks and credit unions continue to report steady traffic at branches, either through drive-up windows or other arrangements, suggesting there is still significant customer demand for their services. 

Cautious Plans for Branches 

Gov. Charlie Baker plans to take a phased approach to reopening the state’s economy and has formed an advisory board, led by Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, to develop guidelines for the process, currently targeted to begin May 18. McLean and Dan Forte, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Bankers Associationspoke to the advisory board on May 3 

Among the questions lenders face are: the number of people allowed in a branch, spacing between customers, monitoring staff with COVID-19 symptomsdaycare options for parents and protective equipment for staff. 

McLean said he recommended that the advisory board develop a program that will help smaller institutions participate in bulk orders of PPE.  

Masks, however, could cause concerns in branches, which have longstanding policies against customers wearing them. To reduce chances for fraud and robbery, banks and credit unions are exploring whether to ask customers to briefly remove the mask and possibly even photograph customer’s faces. 

 While waiting for the advisory board’s report, banks and credit unions have already started making plans for reopening. 

Institution for Savings in Newburyport has closed all lobbies and kept open only three drive-up windows across its 15 branches, Mary Anne Clancy, senior vice president of marketing and communications, said in an email 

The bank hopes to open its remaining drive-up windows after May 18 and handle appointment-based transactions inside, such as letting customers access their safe deposit boxes. Even then, only one customer will be allowed in the branch at a time, Clancy said.   

Clancy added that the bank is considering staggering employees and departments inside each branch on a given day to limit the number of people in the building 

We are writing a new playbook on this one, Clancy said. 

Office Policies Must Change 

Like other banks and credit unions, Institution for Savings moved much of the staff, other than tellers, to working at home, and Clancy said the bank will be looking closely at the role of working at home in its operations.  

Banks will have other considerations to protect customers and employees, including monitoring symptoms. Forte, with the Massachusetts Bankers Association, said a few banks plan to hire nurses to take employees temperatures, but due to privacy concerns, most plan to ask staff members to self-monitor and report potential COVID-19 symptoms. 

Some employees might have health issues that make them uncomfortable returning to work. Campenelli, with Needham Bank, said he is encouraging these employees to voluntarily bring up their concerns. 

“You don’t want people to feel they have to put themselves in harm’s way to maintain their job,” Campanelli said. “If you don’t feel comfortable, speak up and let’s talk about it so that we can find an environment that you feel safe in.” 

Scott Gorman, a human resources liaison for the Massachusetts Bankers Association, has been holding frequent webinars with industry HR personnel since March. He said banks are concerned about shared employee spaces, including kitchens, water coolers and restrooms 

Diane McLauglin

Some institutions have even suspended refrigerator use and require staff to bring food in coolers. 

Vacation time will be another workplace consideration since some employees have already missed out on winter and spring vacations, Gorman said. Banks are now considering whether to amend vacation policies to allow employees to carry an extra week over in 2021. 

Forte added that for employees who do go on vacations, HR personnel will need to consider whether they can ask employees whether they plan to travel to a place known to have a high rate of coronavirus infections. And if an employee does travel to one of these locations, will banks require them to self-quarantine, either by working at home or taking more vacation or sick days. 

Forte also pointed out that there’s no roadmap for much of what banks will need to consider. 

Its going to be evolutionary, and I think were going to have to be flexible,” Forte said. I dont think there are any hard and fast rules.” 

Lenders Write New Branch Playbooks as Reopening Looms

by Diane McLaughlin time to read: 4 min