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Credit unions expect hybrid work model after COVID ends

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The hybrid workplace model that many companies implemented last year as the pandemic spread could be here for the long haul, including at credit unions.

Several credit union executives speaking as part of a panel discussion at this week’s online Governmental Affairs Conference from the Credit Union National Association said many of the changes that were quickly implemented as temporary fixes in 2020 will end up becoming permanent.

In a hybrid system, some workers still report to a central location while others work remotely, often at home. In some cases, employees switch back and forth between the two from week to week or monthly.

Patelco Credit Union in Dublin, Calif., had recently moved staff into a new headquarters building when the pandemic hit and had equipped most of its workers with laptops because the new environment was designed to be more collaborative with workers moving throughout the building.

“So we had an advantage over some others when we had to immediately go remote,” said Chief Finance Officer Susan Gruber.

Now Patelco is anticipating remaining in a hybrid environment in which employees will spend some time in the office and some time working remotely. “We’re just not sure, but we don’t see going back to everyone here at headquarters five days a week,” she said.

The issue for State Employees’ Credit Union in Raleigh, N.C., is how to get as many employees as possible working from home.

Leigh Brady, EVP of organizational development, said when the pandemic hit, the credit union had between 300 and 400 people working remotely and now has more than 2,500 working from home. “If you can work from home, you work from home. Period,” she said.

Cyprus Federal Credit Union West Jordan, Utah, has implemented a phased return to the office and is letting the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local government and health officials guide its strategy, said Buddy Bennett, its chief operating officer.

Cyprus is also using a hybrid setup, with some people working from the office when they need to. Now the challenge is determining how best to use technology to work together under a hybrid model.

“We didn’t do that as a credit union before because most of us were in the office at all times,” Bennett said. “These are some of the challenges we’re still working on and figuring out.”

One of the challenges credit unions will have to confront in a hybrid model, said Bennett, is how to keep their cultures in place. He said communication with remote employees and seeing to it that they feel they’re just as much a part of the team as those in the headquarters is critical.

“We just have to get creative,” he said. “We have to make sure they feel the love and know that we’re thinking about them and care about them, and want them to be contributing to the greater good.”

That can include doing things such as surprising workers by sending small gifts to their homes and playing team games virtually, Bennett said.

The panel was moderated by Mia Perez, chief administrative officer for Louisiana Federal Credit Union in La Place, La., who cited a recent study from the Harvard Business Review that showed employees appreciate the flexibility that comes with remote work, but when they are force to work in a particular place – even their own home – motivation drops off.

Jim Philips, chief information officer for SchoolsFirst FCU in Santa Ana, Calif., said, “our team is really trying to find the right balance.” Two months into the pandemic, many work-from-home employees were loving that setup, but that enthusiasm has diminished over time.

Another benefit emerging from the pandemic is that it is allowing credit unions to cast a wider net for talent acquisition, said Brian Grytdal, vice president of marketing for Horizon Credit Union in Spokane Valley, Wash.

He said the credit union recently made a couple of hires who are located hundreds of miles away — an option that might not have been considered pre-pandemic. But it is possible today because there is no longer a need for those employees to go to the office.

Some credit unions are capitalizing in other ways too.

Brady said State Employees’ bought a couple of buildings during the pandemic at lower-than-anticipated costs, which will position the company’s growth for years to come. She said the credit union is also considering a “hoteling” concept as well, where employees working from its headquarters will be able to stay on-site. “We will be able to sustain our physical space needs for years,” she said.

But getting employees vaccinated remains a challenge, she said, adding that there is a lot of talk in the industry about whether institutions will require employees to get vaccinated.

“We have to worry about getting the message out on the efficacy and the safety of that vaccine,” she said.

Brady said State Employees’ is “encouraging but not requiring” the shot because forcing people to get it will still not result in a 100% vaccinated workforce, since some will balk for religious beliefs or health reasons.