Remote possibilities

Banks that embrace remote work are evolving their management structures—and reaping the rewards.

By Monica C. Meinert

Remote work has been a game changer for businesses and employees alike over the last few years.

Employees—both current staff and prospective hires—are increasingly expecting greater flexibility and seeking a better work-life balance. Meanwhile, remote working opportunities have enabled companies to expand beyond geographic borders in their search for talent.

For the banking industry, the ability to hire a remote employee can provide distinct advantages, particularly for highly specialized roles in the compliance and risk management disciplines.

“We now see [a remote work offering]as a competitive advantage for hiring,” noted Cara James, EVP and chief risk officer at Bentonville, Arkansas-based Arvest Bank, during a session at the recent ABA/ABA Financial Crimes Enforcement Conference. “We’ve seen this as helping us get where we need to be from a staffing perspective.”

The pivot

While many businesses were forced to pivot to a remote environment in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, remote work has long been a part of Arvest’s strategy, given the bank’s large geographic footprint and decentralized business model. “We were well-suited to take it to the next step” when COVID hit, James acknowledges.

During the pandemic, the bank classified all job roles into categories: remote-first, remote-friendly, remote-capable and location-based, and continues to strive for consistency across the organization in how jobs are classified—though division heads do have some discretion to make decisions.

The majority of James’ team is remote-first. She herself is a vocal advocate for the benefits of remote work, noting that a broader acceptance of working from home has enabled her to spend less time on the road and increase productivity with the help of collaboration tools, including Zoom. “I believe strongly that remote work can be successful,” James notes. “Production is high, quality is high and employee satisfaction is high.”

But that’s not to say that the move to remote work has come with no challenges—especially for banks that were working almost entirely in-person prior to COVID.

When Tupelo, Mississippi-based Cadence Bank made its decision to take employees remote during the pandemic, Chief BSA Officer Beau Stubbs says he hit the books.

“I found some great books [and]great podcasts that I really delved into to help me understand: What is the most effective way to make sure that my team is cared for and successful?” he says. “What I landed on was servant leadership: Understanding that my team’s needs come before mine. What I strive to do is make sure that if the phone rings, I answer it. If there’s an email that requires my attention, I’m on it.”

The key to being able to do that effectively, he adds, is getting comfortable with delegating tasks to lower-level employees. “Prior to the pandemic, I was just learning how to delegate—but during the pandemic, you really had to learn how to delegate,” Stubbs says. Now, “if one of my direct reports can do something 80 percent as well as I can, I’m going to give them that task.” And provide additional coaching as needed.

Expectations and engagement

Both James and Stubbs agree that managing in a remote world requires intentional communication—without the opportunity for spontaneous chats at the water cooler, managers need to proactively create ways to engage with their employees and receive feedback.

For James, that involves more frequent one-on-one meetings, more management team meetings and more “skip level” meetings. She tries to catch every employee over the course of a year one-on-one, and she also hosts group meetings with associates further down the management chain to give them an opportunity to ask questions. In addition, she now requires biweekly written updates from direct reports on major projects. As head of the risk division, she hosts a quarterly all-staff call featuring speakers from around the bank to provide updates on current initiatives to help employees keep a pulse on things happening outside their division.

At Cadence Bank, Stubbs hosts monthly leadership calls for all managers and team leaders in his department, emphasizing that “when you lead your leaders well, they lead others well—that sets other people up to become leaders.” Accordingly, as job vacancies crop up, Stubbs has a strong preference for promoting from within.

When new employees do come on board, integrating them into the team can present a special set of obstacles in a remote environment—something James says she struggled with, particularly in the early days of COVID. That led to the creation of a standardized onboarding program, managed by an executive assistant. The program outlines a series of touchpoints through which employees are welcomed and made to feel part of the team, including things like a handwritten note from the supervisor on the first day, a welcome box with office supplies and company swag, coordination of a first-day lunch (either an in-person meetup or via meal delivery app) and more throughout the first several weeks of employment.

“It is amazing how much positive feedback we’ve gotten on that in terms of people feeling like they’re part of the team,” James remarks.

Accountability from afar

Ensuring employees are integrated into the team and have the resources they need to succeed can go a long way. But managers still need to have mechanisms in place to hold remote workers accountable.

Stubbs depends on weekly metrics reports to keep a pulse on his team’s production levels.

“I get an email sent to me with the prior week’s production for BSA/AML/OFAC for the entire department Monday mornings at 11 a.m.,” Stubbs says. “From there, I’m able to see exactly how many alerts [individual employees]did,” and address any issues with downline managers, he says. “With that, I’m able to get a lot of comfortability and a high degree of confidence that my team is doing well.”

At Arvest, employees enter into a remote work agreement with the company, which outlines a standard expectation for remote work: for example, that employees are responsible for finding childcare, maintaining a professional environment and being available during business hours.

And if performance issues do arise, managers reserve the right to pull employees back into the office. “Psychologically, it’s [saying]‘We’re going to pull you a little closer, we’re going to have a little more personal contact until we figure out what this performance problem is,’ ” James says. “It’s been effective in terms of getting people to kick it up a notch.”

At the end of the day, Stubbs adds, it’s about ensuring employees have the training and tools they need. And clearly communicating expectations. After all, “an unclear expectation is an unfair expectation.”

Remote access may be purchased to view the 2022 ABA/ABA Financial Crimes Enforcement Conference session recordings. The 2023 conference will take place Nov. 28-30 at Gaylord National Resort at National Harbor, Maryland.


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