By Paul Benda
We are living in unprecedented times.
The novel coronavirus is fundamentally changing—at least temporarily—the nature of human interaction and how we go about our daily lives. While businesses, schools and even churches are shutting down, America’s banks remain open for business, doing the important work of providing credit, advice and assistance to individuals and entrepreneurs—many of whom are facing economic hardship.
This situation is a fluid one, and with things changing on an almost hourly basis, an undoubtedly stressful one. But in talking with ABA members nationwide, we’ve seen a powerful and uplifting response to these trying times. From waiving fees, offering special branch hours for senior citizens, to donating to domestic and global response efforts, banks are working in lockstep with one another to meet the needs of their customers.
We’ve also seen several common practices emerging that together can provide a useful roadmap for responding to the pandemic at your own institution.
The novel coronavirus, first and foremost, is a health challenge. It can be spread through droplets when a person coughs or sneezes and can live for several days on surfaces. With that in mind, keeping your bank branches clean is critical. Provide a plan for your branch employees to help them protect themselves before, during and after serving customers. This could include using hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes and gloves, but if you provide gloves they are most effective if they are changed often and discarded immediately.
Clean surfaces thoroughly and often, especially high touch areas. That should include the drive-through area, including the drawer and the tube, teller stations and speaker. To help minimize the risk of person-to-person transmission, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that individuals keep a six-foot distance of separation when interacting with others.
In the event that an employee or customer tests positive for COVID-19, it may be prudent to close the branch for a deep cleaning. Having a plan and established procedures for closing a branch under these circumstances can help banks react quickly to these situations and ensure that the branch can be re-opened as soon as possible. And as always, when making any changes to your hours of operation, remember to keep your customers and primary regulator informed.
Banking has always been a relationship business. While the coronavirus requires us to limit face-to-face interactions, banks are taking steps to ensure that customers can access the services and advice they need, while protecting their employees’ health.
One of the best things you can do is to communicate with your customers, early and often. Make sure they are aware of alternative ways to access financial services and conduct banking transactions, such as through ATMs or ITMs, online banking, a mobile app or calling the bank’s customer service line. Encourage them to use those channels before coming to the branch in person.
Keep in mind that many are anxious right now about paying their bills and knowing their money is safe. Take the opportunity to educate your customers on FDIC insurance and assure them that an insured depository institution is the safest place for their money to be. Also, consider reaching out proactively to your business customers, particularly those in the hospitality or restaurant industry, as they may be facing extreme hardships at this time.
While most routine transactions can ideally be shifted to digital channels, certain customers may still require access to the branch. There are several steps banks can take to ensure the safety of bank staff when handling in-person transactions.
One suggestion is to have a sign posted outside the branch requesting that customers who feel ill not enter the branch and use the drive-through instead. Having a sign-in system for branch access by both staff and customers may also be a good strategy—this gives management a running log of who has entered the branch on a given day. The log can then be referenced quickly in the event that a customer, employee or service provider tests positive for COVID-19.
Some banks are doing new account openings or new loans by appointment only, and some have dedicated one branch lobby for business customers only. Given the particular risk to senior citizens and those with preexisting medical conditions, some institutions have also begun designating special times—called “golden hours”—where only these individuals may access the branch.
The health and safety of bank employees is undoubtedly of paramount concern to each and every bank CEO during this time. To the extent that employees are able, transitioning to a remote work should be encouraged. Keep in mind that with many schools and childcare facilities closing, your employees may be facing a whole new set of challenges at home as they work to adjust the families to new schedules.
For employees that need to report to work at a branch, consider staggering work times or dividing up shifts in the office to minimize the number of people that need to be physically present at a given location. Employees should also take their temperature before reporting to work if possible, and any employee that feels ill or is experiencing symptoms consistent with the coronavirus should be directed to stay home.
While at work, employees should maintain the recommended six-foot distance between each other and their customers. Ask staff to remain within their own work area and not move to other areas of the bank. You may also consider splitting up large teams—such as the mortgage processing department—between buildings, so that if there is an exposure to the virus in one location, the entire team will not be affected.
Finally, it should almost go without saying that non–essential travel should be limited for all bank employees. You should also have a policy in place for employees to report possible exposures and self-quarantine if they travel or have contact with another individual who may be showing symptoms.
In a pandemic situation, communication and coordination between bank management becomes critical. It’s a good practice to have your pandemic response team meet daily to keep everyone apprised of the latest developments. Teleconferencing platforms such as Skype or Zoom can be useful for bringing everyone together virtually. Also, remember to check in daily with branch managers on a regular schedule to ensure that branch operations are running smoothly.
In addition, remember to communicate regularly with your regulators, and be on the lookout for new guidance not just from the banking agencies but from your local health departments—in a pandemic situation, they have the greatest level of authority over closures and other restrictions. Also look to ABA for additional information at aba.com/coronavirus.
These are just a few of the strategies banks are employing to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, ensure the safety of their employees and serve their customers. As the industry continues to navigate this ever-changing situation, ABA is collecting information on how institutions are responding. To share your bank’s response, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Paul Benda is SVP for risk and cybersecurity policy at ABA.