Article

HR Answers: Credit Unions Transition to a New Way to Work

illustration of people wearing white medical masks during the coronavirus pandemic
Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR Photo
Contributing Writer

11 minutes

How CUs have tackled working from home and communication with staff during the coronavirus crisis

Last month, credit unions around the country, along with other businesses of all types and sizes, found themselves suddenly faced with a crisis that would upend “business as usual” and impact staff, members and communities.

The coronavoris or, more specifically, COVID-19, had impacted people in all 50 states by the end of March, and had resulted in a myriad of state, county and local stay in place and stay at home orders. While some locations (such as New York and Louisiana) have been impacted more dramatically than others, literally no community has gone unscathed. As the media carried daily reports of new diagnoses, and deaths, and federal and state government agencies scrambled to make critical, and highly sensitive decisions to protect both public health and the economy, credit unions quickly emerged as one of a number of “essential businesses” meaning that they could stay open to serve member needs but also, in some cases, requiring employees to continue to report to work. Others were able to leverage prior experience with remote work and online services. All remained focus on member—and staff—needs.

Transitioning to a New Way of Working

Wednesday, March 18 was the final day that $4 billion Corporate America Credit Union, Irondale, Alabama, had staff physically in its offices serving members. “It was a hard decision,” says Pete Pritts, president/CEO. Information had been changing rapidly, he says, but in hindsight, he says, “I believe it turned out to be the right decision.”

On the 18th, when the announcement was made, the credit union set up a staging area and quasi assembly line and handed out equipment—laptops and MiFi mobile hotspot units—to employees. “It was an organized process of preparation to help them work from home,” Pritts says. The day before a few people had been sent home to test systems prior to actually closing.

Credit unions, Pritts notes, are considered essential entities so they could have continued to staff physical locations. “But we chose to go this route, and I’m glad we did,” he says. The credit union is relatively small with 65 employees around the nation, so communication is less challenging than it might be for larger organizations.

In fact, the small size means that Pritts can connect personally with staff, something he began doing about a week after physical sites closed. He’s calling every employee, he says, “first and foremost to see how they’re doing, how’s the family, how’s the dog, how’s the tech?”

Things have been going well, Pritts says. The biggest issue—and one he has personally experienced—is that wi-fi functionality varies quite a bit—“some is powerful, some is not.” The credit union has addressed that by issuing hot spot set ups, which has helped.

Because of the credit union’s dispersed staff, Zoom had previously been used for board and supervisor meetings. On April 1 the credit union had plans to use Zoom for the first time for an all-staff meeting connecting everyone from all of their remote locations. It’s a tool that people around the country are increasingly coming to rely upon.

We have redeployed team members based on their strengths. For example, our learning specialists are assisting with member calls since they are familiar with our core systems.
Teshia Davis, SPHR, SHRM-SCP
VP/People and Culture
SECU of Maryland

Hiway Federal Credit Union in St. Paul, Minnesota, closed its lobbies to general traffic on March 19 but continues to serve members through appointments, branch drive-through locations, a 24/7 call center and digital channels. The credit union also is providing additional support for front-line associates in the form of a 20 percent bonus.

In a news release, $1.2 billion Hiway FCU’s president/CEO Dave Boden said: “Many people are still working here in the offices—some in direct member contact roles, some on the phones—and we have others working at home to help members. We’re all in this together to ensure everyone is getting the service and the help they need.”

In addition to bonus pay, Hiway is conducting more vigorous building cleanings, enacting social distancing and scheduling flexibility and remote work options. For members, the credit union is offering payment deferrals and loan modifications as well as low-rate hardship loans and hardship fee waivers.

Protecting Staff/Monitoring Wellness

“We have executed our own stay-at-home mandate for any team members that are sick or presenting symptoms and have created a ‘positive test’ plan that outlines the steps that should be taken in the event we receive information about a team member or member that tests positive for COVID-19,” says Heidi Kassab, president/CEO of $290 million Cornerstone Community Financial Credit Union, Auburn Hills, Michigan.

If necessary, Kassab says, the credit union will be able to reallocate team members to other branch locations or reevaluate service hours and continue to promote remote banking options to meet member needs. “We have been extremely fortunate that our staff have all been extremely resourceful,” she says. “We have allocated staff to needed roles and altered work schedules to accommodate our increased call volume.”

Kasab says that the new Family First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) will be a “huge benefit” for employees. But, she adds: “we knew we needed more to supplement time taken, especially for those now caring for a son or daughter whose school or daycare has been closed.” The credit union created a 40-hour bank of time that employees can use on top of any other existing paid leave. To recognize those team members who do not have remote work options, those coming into the branch day after day, taking care of our members, will receive supplemental bonus pay of $150 per pay period.

We provide lunch every day for the staff who are still working on site. We see that as a win-win since we are able to provide lunch to the employees and support local restaurants that are struggling since they are not open for in-person service.
Michelle Bliffen, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, CUHRCP
VP/Human Resources
University of Kentucky Federal Credit Union

$978 million University of Kentucky Federal Credit Union, Lexington, Kentucky, has eliminated limits on its sick pay benefits and has instructed employees to enter all time off as sick pay. “We closed our lobbies on March 18 and then we stopped all cross-branch employee traffic,” says CUES member Michelle Bliffen, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, CUHRCP, VP/human resources. “We wanted to make sure that if we did have an employee who was sick, they would not travel from branch to branch and possibly infect other branches.” While the credit union’s student center branch has been closed, employees from that branch have been sent to other branches to help. “We have not had any need to make adjustments other than that yet,” she says.

UKFCU communicates every day about the credit union’s response to the pandemic, how it will impact employees and their commitment to taking care of employees. “We provide lunch every day for the staff who are still working on site,” says Bliffen. “We see that as a win-win since we are able to provide lunch to the employees and support local restaurants that are struggling since they are not open for in-person service.”

$3.7 billion SECU of Maryland, Linthicum, Maryland, has done several things in just a few short weeks to help support staff and help ensure their wellbeing, says Teshia Davis, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, VP/people and culture, including:

  • recognized all employees with a special bonus to thank them and help ease any unexpected financial burden;
  • mailed hand sanitizer to every employee’s home; and
  • rallied team members to secure cleaning supplies to deliver to the CU’s front line.

Managing the Business

In 2019, Bliffen says, UKFCU “spent a great deal of time creating ‘desk manuals’ for all of our positions with the idea that if someone suddenly left, we would be able to sit someone down at their desk and get through their daily tasks. Little did we know that these would be a critical part of our pandemic response,” she says. The preparation paid off. “We have been very fortunate in that we were able to quickly mobilize our operations team and send them home to work. We have not had any skills gaps emerge yet, but we have been able to keep everyone working.”

Some credit union staff have had experience working from home, others have not.  “This is new for many,” says Davis. Her advice for them:

  • have a schedule to follow;
  • get dressed—don’t stay in pajamas all day;
  • eat (“I often hear no one eats because they are on so many calls," she says);
  • incorporate activity in your day; and
  • disconnect at a certain time to recharge and spend time with loved ones.

SECU has not found itself with any surplus staff, says Davis. “We have redeployed team members based on their strengths. For example, our learning specialists are assisting with member calls since they are familiar with our core systems.” SECU is fortunate “to have the majority of our employees working and where we have had to reduce hours, we are supplementing to ensure they receive their full pay,” Davis says.

Credit unions also are taking steps to address members needs during the coronavirus. SECU, says Davis, has:

  • rolled out financial relief benefits for members who have been negatively impacted by COVID-19;
  • increased ATM levels to allow access to higher levels of cash through self-service channels;
  • streamlined scheduling online; and
  • initiated a senior hour to support social distancing to those that may be of higher risk.

In addition, SECU will be announcing more than $200,000 in community relief efforts in the coming weeks to help with things like childcare, meals, education and household expenses. “We continue to look for ways we can help and support our employees, members and communities,” Davis says.

Embracing Flexibility

Jill Nowacki is president/CEO of CUES Supplier member Humanidei + O’Rourke, a human capital strategies firm in South San Francisco, California. “It’s important right now for credit unions to be flexible with their policies, especially as more employees are working from home. While work from home policies typically and traditionally have included provisions that employees working from home have childcare arrangements, right now that’s not practical. Many of our employees may be single parents or there may be two adults in the home but they’re still working,” she says.

Things are shifting quickly and it may be difficult, if not impossible, to adjust or update policies accordingly. For right now, that’s likely not a priority. Instead, says Nowacki, employers should remain flexible and learn from their experiences during this time, but keeping employee needs top of mind.

Keeping Communication Lines Open

Communication is always important, but especially so in times of such uncertainty. Credit unions are focused on ensuring two-way channels of communication so employees, members and others can get their questions and concerns addressed.

[Last year, we] spent a great deal of time creating ‘desk manuals’ for all of our positions with the idea that if someone suddenly left, we would be able to sit someone down at their desk and get through their daily tasks. Little did we know that these would be a critical part of our pandemic response.
Michelle Bliffen, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, CUHRCP
VP/Human Resources
University of Kentucky Federal Credit Union

Members, says Pritts have tended to be most concerned about the credit union’s liquidity and the credit union has addressed those concerns, ensuring members that their funds are not at risk.

Nowacki is passionate about the importance of diversity and inclusion. “It’s the work my firm was founded to do,” she says. During these challenging times companies, including credit unions, will need to make tough decisions. It’s important, though, to maintain a commitment to ensuring they’re practicing inclusion with their workforce, she says. “That means making sure they’re communicating really transparently, making sure that every individual is being regarded and given the space and grace to have whatever issue they’re facing addressed.”

At UKFCU, says Bliffen, “we send out a daily email every morning to the employees who are working at home.” The email provides tips on how to make the transition smooth—“simple things like sticking to a regular schedule, getting ready like you would for work, setting up a space that is separate form your ‘living’ space if at all possible, and keeping in touch with the team.” The credit union also has Zoom accounts for managers so they can have check-in calls with their teams daily. “So far, the employees seem to be adjusting very well,” she says.

Transparency and openness are key, says Nowacki, but organizations also need to watch their messaging. “We’re seeing a lot of messaging out there like ‘your grandparents were called into fight WW2 and all you’re being asked to do it sit on your couch.’ That type of message can be very insensitive because it comes from a place of privilege to be able to say that,” she says.

Credit unions also need to be aware of, and sensitive to, the issues some staff members may be facing which could range anywhere from feelings of isolation to the risk of domestic violence.

It’s likely that it’s not possible to overcommunicate during this time, says Nowaski. “People are hungry for more information,” she says. “Credit unions need to make sure people know that information is coming and that even if you don’t have all of the information right now, you’re aware of the need to continually explore and will continue to put out updates.” Two-way communication should also be a priority, allowing employees the opportunity to communicate through a variety of channels, both written and verbal.

Nowacki cautions credit union leaders and managers to be sure that they’re not just communicating with one or two people on their team. “It’s important to be really intentional and make sure that you don’t default into communicating with just one person, but that you are making the effort to communicate with everyone on the team,” she says.

The credit union community is a tight knit one that has collectively weathered many challenges in the past. They’re well-positioned to tackle this one as well. With quick action taken to protect employees, members and communities, credit unions are taking the lead in modeling what a swift, mission-driven and customer-centric approach looks like.

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a writer and human resource management and marketing communication consultant in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. She is the author of The Everything Guide to Customer Engagement (Adams Media, 2014) and Human Resource Essentials (SHRM, 2010).

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