Before remote work was an emergency measure to keep employees safe from a devastating virus, it was a perk some community banks offered to retain and attract talent. Two years on, many banks are incorporating flexible work arrangements into their strategic plans, and for good reason.

“It’s imperative for industry leaders to understand the extent to which the pandemic reset employee expectations,” Samsung declared in a 2021 finance and banking report. “Despite the finance industry’s historical dependence on in-person interactions to build trust and do business, remote and hybrid work models are here to stay.”

This evolution is challenging community banks to figure out how to balance new methods of working while maintaining the personal touch and local knowledge that help them win and keep customers.

One bank that is not turning back

WesBanco, Inc. in Wheeling, W.Va., is among the community banks carefully navigating the new landscape. While nearly 200 of the bank’s 2,460 employees could work remotely pre-pandemic, that number jumped significantly as COVID-19 raged. By early 2022, of its approximately 1,200 non-branch personnel—including lenders, wealth management and support departments—70% were hybrid, 20% were remote and 10% were fully in the office.

The $16.9 billion-asset community bank has left the decision of who works where to the leaders of its business units. “They give us the rationale,” says Tony Pietranton, WesBanco, Inc.’s senior executive vice president and group head of human resources and facilities. “At the end of the day, they’re running their portion of the business, and they have to be able to get the job done. If they’re finding they’re able to be effective and complete their jobs that way, and the employees want to do it [under their remote or hybrid arrangements], we’re fine with that.”

Staffers with a hybrid schedule include some commercial lenders as well as those working in the credit unit, finance and accounting, various support operations, insurance and securities departments. Many IT, marketing and finance profitability analytics employees are remote.

“We do feel there are certain positions that can remain hybrid and some that can remain 100% remote,” Pietranton says. WesBanco, Inc. has begun surveying its managers to determine that path forward. For example, it’s asking how their current arrangements are working, what performance measures they have in place and how they want to structure their work model in the future.

WesBanco, Inc. is also evaluating the workspace requirements of hybrid and remote teams. Is a permanent workstation still necessary for those who don’t come in every day, for instance, or do hybrid teams that work on a rotating schedule now only need half the space they once had? Also, could the bank benefit from adopting a “hoteling” model in which remote employees can reserve an office periodically?

A fresh mindset is critical for genuine change

Welcoming the future of work has been more difficult for other institutions. “I have some banks that are like, ‘We want everybody back in the office because we want the team back, and there’s something about being in person,’” says Marcia Malzahn, who works with community banks across the country as president of the management consulting practice Malzahn Strategic in Maple Grove, Minn.

“You can put your head in the sand and try to ignore [that workers have changing expectations], or you can embrace it, and that’s what we’ve decided to do.”
—Adrian Breen, The Bank of Missouri

Not having everyone working under one roof comes with risks, acknowledges Adrian Breen, president and CEO of The Bank of Missouri in Perryville, Mo.

“As CEO, my main concern is the dilution of our culture,” he says. That said, he acknowledges that hiring local talent for every position is no longer practical for his 130-year-old, $2.8 billion-asset bank.

“You can put your head in the sand and try to ignore [that workers have changing expectations], or you can embrace it, and that’s what we’ve decided to do,” Breen says, adding that if a role is data-driven, software-related or one of a few operational roles, “You can be anywhere in the country and have that job.”

This year, The Bank of Missouri has posted a number of job openings that are categorized as either fully remote or “optional work from home.” Those roles include talent acquisition specialist; administrator for a commercial loan operating system and customer relationship management platform; and a few positions on the team that manages the bank’s banking as a service (BaaS) fintech relationships.

Consistency amid disruption

Community banks that adopt more flexible work arrangements are finding they don’t need to sacrifice customer care. “We’ve been able to keep our bonds in the community because our client-facing people are out there,” WesBanco, Inc.’s Pietranton says.

“[My] motto is ‘no dents in seats.’ There’s no reason at all why a good relationship manager couldn’t work from home and then go to their clients.”
—Bill Filippin, Community West Bank

To be sure, “out there” has always had wide boundaries. Malzahn recalls that years ago, as a private banker, she would visit customers’ homes to deliver cash or demonstrate how they could pay their bills online. She also notes that during the pandemic, many bankers didn’t close loans in person. Rather, they relied on virtual meetings and DocuSign. “Personal service is initiated by the banker,” she says. “It’s not location driven.”

Likewise, Community West Bank in Goleta, Calif., has long encouraged its commercial lenders, which it calls relationship managers, to be out meeting with existing and potential customers.

“[My] motto is ‘no dents in seats,’” says Bill Filippin, president of the $1.1 billion-asset commercial business bank. “There’s no reason at all why a good relationship manager couldn’t work from home and then go to their clients.”

Filippin wants these employees to be based in their markets. “Our relationship managers need to be part of the community,” he says. “They should be involved in the chamber [of commerce], they should know the mayor, they should know the local politics to know what kind of loans we want to do and in which areas.”

Community West Bank is, however, open to hiring remote workers outside its footprint for back-office functions like credit administration and finance. Filippin sees that approach as a recruiting opportunity, since the high cost of living in its coastal region can repel some top talent.

Still, candidates must generally live within California. Filippin says that as a small community bank, Community West Bank is not currently exploring tax laws and human resources laws in every single state.

There are many ways to meet the needs of employees

Of course, working remotely or hybrid isn’t for everyone. Filippin says some employees who started the year working outside the office will choose to return to it to network with their team members.

He also predicts that after COVID-19 has faded, 25% to 30% of his workforce will work from home, at least part of the week. It’s a development he wouldn’t have believed even five years ago.

“Being in banking for 30 years, I wanted everyone around me,” Filippin says. “But I learned quickly. Change is important, and evolving is important, and to get the best talent around, you’ve got to be able to have your mind open to new ideas and new methods. I have fully embraced hybrid and remote work.”

ITMs could help tellers join remote ranks

Flexible work arrangements aren’t yet an option for every bank employee. Tellers, for instance, still dutifully make the commute. Yet, interactive teller machines (ITMs) are creating new possibilities for some team members.

ITMs operate like automated teller machines but enable customers to interact with tellers over a video link. They can stay open longer than branches, and they can accomplish a lot. Adrian Breen, president and CEO of The Bank of Missouri in Perryville, Mo., says his ITMs can do 70% or 80% of traditional bank transactions.

Marcia Malzahn, president of management consulting practice Malzahn Strategic in Maple Grove, Minn., sees this technology as a chance to open up remote opportunities for tellers. “Now a customer can go to an ITM, and it doesn’t matter where the employee is behind the screen,” she says. “They can be at home, or they can be in the bank.”

Today, the tellers who interact with customers through The Bank of Missouri’s 40+ ITMs work from branches, but that could change as the community bank progresses in its digital transformation efforts. “There’s a little bit more technology needed,” Breen says, “but we do see developing that to where they can work from home.”