Has COVID-19 Killed Open-Concept Bank Spaces?

By Deb Stewart

Banks have spent years opening up their branch, call center and office spaces with a focus on more collaborative interactions. What happens to this design principle in our post-COVID 19 world? We talked to three industry thought leaders about these questions.

To set the stage we need to understand what people are thinking. What are expectations about safety, staff interaction and what customers want to know before they walk into a branch? A recent study by Shikatani Lacroix Design surveyed 2,000 consumers. Here’s what consumers found to be important in key areas:

Fighting branch COVID 19 anxiety via structure and process:

  • Sanitation stations throughout branch (62 percent)
  • Adequate separation between customers (58.6 percent)
  • Automatic doors (58.5 percent)
  • Adequate separation between the customer and branch staff (56.2 percent)
  • Adequate separation of working zones for staff (52.7 percent)
  • Markings in the queuing and customer waiting areas (51.6 percent)

Branch COVID-19 physical versus digital priorities:

  • Plexiglass panels between customer and staff (49.1 percent)
  • Mobile feature for customers to book appointments (45.6 percent)
  • Mobile feature for customers to queue via mobile app rather than in branch (44.1 percent)
  • Furniture and fixtures allow for open space (43.1 percent)
  • Branch furniture and fixtures designed to reduce germs (42 percent)

Many of these safety requirements will be addressed as branches reopen adhering to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines including practicing physical distancing, additional cleaning, rearranging furniture, masks and gloves for employees and plastic barriers. Longer term solutions—including enhancements to mobile banking apps, contactless customer verification and payments, new fabrics and surfaces, enhanced ventilation systems, automatic doors and more open space—will inform the technologies and design of future branches.

Your next branch design is about both process and design

The objective of new design is always to facilitate the best possible customer experience. The customers’ lens for that experience has changed, along with the need to address other structural issues. Important issues banks are confronting:

  • The purpose of the branch has been shifting from transactional to consultative and the virus has accelerated that shift. “So your next branch will not be about more space,” says Gina Bleedorn, chief experience officer at Adrenaline, a creative and environmental design firm. “It will be about different utilization of space. We are now really building centers for consultation and advice with continued emphasis on social distancing.”
  • “Banks need to become more operationally efficient so a lot of postponed closures will happen. Leveraging technology solutions may help customers to ride through this change,” says John W. Smith, CEO of DBSI, a bank design firm, and CFM, which focuses on integration technology.
  • “What do customers view as a great experience?” asks Aaron Birney, principal and design director for Gensler, a leading design firm. “Am I going to feel safe and secure? Psychology has changed. Habits and perspectives have formed and they will stick around. There are basic changes like a desire to touch fewer surfaces and decrease the amount of time people spend in a space. The best banks will leverage technology to create a newer, better experience.”

Redefining the consultation zone—less time, more space

“We are in an interesting situation with the move to consultation,” says Birney. “This function has traditionally been designed around privacy. But younger consumers actually value open space and privacy so we need to support both.”

Does this mean a larger footprint?

“We believe it will all equal out—people need space to collaborate. How do we do it? Solving that will be critical to remaining relevant,” says Birney.

Transaction space will convert to consultative space. Consulting rooms will become more open, getting larger due to distancing requirements. The need to share one screen or share paper goes away with new media options. Collaborative interactions will be supported with circular or oval table designs that provide more openness and continuous sight lines.

To support the desire to spend less time in a space, enhanced omnichannel support will allow consumers to do much prework from home. For this to happen, processes behind many activities need to change, such as account opening. Paired with omnichannel support, the rapid adoption of appointment booking will allow bankers to share work done from home and make in-branch meetings shorter and more effective.

Entry and transaction zones: minimizing contact and space

“Automation of entry and exit doors will be the standard,” says Smith. “Some will be single doors sufficiently wide to maintain social distancing. Others will be designated entry and exit doors as seen in major retailers. Check-in may be with a human concierge using a tablet, or through a contactless digital device or pre-staged mobile queuing, requiring less space and less contact than the traditional greeter desk.”

The teller line is really gone. Cash and short duration service transactions will move to self-service devices or ITMs that will be voice-enabled or pre-staged through mobile. Transactions requiring personal service will occur at widely spaced service pods on the floor. Pull-down shields will continue to communicate that this is a safe space.

“There’s a big question around cash,” Smith says. “An emerging solution is to create a QR code at the service pod and allow the customer to pull the cash out of a remote recycler located on the floor. This results in reduced cash handling cost and a greater sense of control for the customer.”

The goal of facilitating migration will also be supported at these pods. Discovery tables with shared technology will go away and the mobile learning function will move exclusively onto customers’ own devices. “Convenient self-assessment via financial health apps will drive need-based conversations both in-branch or via remote video,” Smith adds.

Drive-throughs are back in your branch design

By pinch-hitting for in-person retail banking service during months of social distancing, the drive-through is more popular than ever before. Your next branch will need to address the drive-up preference, supporting transactions with ATMs and interactive teller machines—many touchless and staffed remotely, not necessarily attached to the building. “We need to recognize this behavior change and consider enhancing the drive-up experience with drive-in services like signing documents or coin and currency pickup,” Bleedorn says. “A bank version of curbside pick-up along with efficient remotely staffed ITMs as a bridge between digital and physical.”

Staffing the new branch

The use of universal bankers is key to this new branch. Fewer associates with branch choreography that allows movement between transaction and advisory functions is critical. “It’s important to remember that proxemics (space relative to one another) have changed for the first time in history,” says Bleedorn. “As you evaluate, think with empathy. Put yourself in the customers’ shoes. Make sure your staff is trained and prepared—not scared—creating a reassuring experience for customers.”

What about the open-concept headquarters, call center and other office space?

Expect office capacity to drop. Do capacity calculations based on distancing requirements. You may find that you can only accommodate one-third to one-half of current occupants. It all comes down to rethinking business requirements. Centralized call centers and bank support functions all made sense. But with digital solutions does it still make sense? “Go through each business group,” Birney advises. “What are their privacy and security issues? Then consider if any functions can become more dispersed. Can they happen in different spaces or from home offices? Keep questioning the why of what you do and in all likelihood your space needs will stay the same.”

Rethink the cubicle. “Reposition cubicle orientation to face one another with a safety shield,” Smith says. “Move cubicle blocks to the left and right farther apart per distancing requirements. This will feel more open and also safe.”

End the big meeting. Conference room capacity will drop significantly. Mark the newly reduced capacity prominently on the doors and only provide that number of chairs.

Make nearly everything contactless. Install foot openers on restroom doors and touchless bathroom fixtures. Make your cafeteria contactless through redesigned food and payment options.

Build in reminders. Use carpet designs to remind everyone how they should queue for the elevator or how far away from a cubicle they should stand. And keep communicating and reminding staff of why this is important.

Are open-concept offices gone? No, but these new office concepts will focus as much on revised business practices as on design. And, as we’ve seen in 2020, change happens. So making these spaces adaptive prepares your bank for the future.

Deb Stewart is a frequent contributor to ABA Bank Marketing.