As a result of COVID-19, credit unions were forced to quickly implement work from home procedures, physical branch closings, health screening and cleaning procedures upon reopening, member accommodations including loan forbearance and fee reductions/ forgiveness, and more. There has been a whirlwind of new policies to ensure operational consistency and employee and customer wellbeing, but what happens when the pandemic is a thing of the past?

While in some cases credit union management teams can’t wait to get back to “normal,” they should also consider the positives of keeping some of these measures in place on a long-term basis. For example, flexible work schedules afforded by remote work, member adoption of technology, reduced travel expenses, and more. Certain aspects of the COVID-19 crisis have accelerated shifts into the future of work and technology that were a long time coming.

When there’s a crisis, business leaders don’t generally think about a disciplined change process, spend much time evaluating alternatives, put together sleek-looking business case documents or build consensus or “buy-in.” Once the fire is put out it can be difficult to assess which measures will continue to work in the future. To determine what should stay and what can go, credit union leaders should start by asking themselves these key questions:

  • Have you consciously chosen those items that constitute “the good stuff” from the emergency response that you want to keep? This might happen unconsciously over time, but don’t leave it to chance. Have a dedicated conversation to sort these items.
  • Are you controlling the messaging around the conversion of an emergency response to a lasting change? If your people sense this conversion happening, they will talk about it and you should not assume this is a positive discussion. Employees may resist a change even though they supported the same item as an emergency response earlier in the year.
  • Are you prepared to articulate, measure, and report the pros and cons of the changes and actively promote desired changes? Establish clear, measurable, and reportable metrics upfront. You can use the last year’s worth of data.
  • Are you pro-actively addressing the idea that going back to how it was “before” is not the path forward in some cases and why? There may be more employees who find this idea stressful than you think. Do you know or are you assuming how your people feel about this?

Another factor that may impact which measures stay in place and which are eliminated post-pandemic is member behavior. Broadly speaking, over the past year credit union members have increased adoption rates of electronic channels (app, website, phone, text, web chat, etc.), increased savings rates, decreased use of currency, decreased focus on branch interaction, and increased focus on mortgage refinancing/ shoring up household balance sheets. Any changes implemented that align with changing member behavior are worth a second look as they will help grow the branch in the future.

Once decisions are made on which emergency responses will be converted to permanent changes, those choices will need to be communicated effectively to employees and members, keeping the following in mind:

  • “We’ve been doing it the new way for a year already” is not automatically going to resonate with people. Be prepared to explain why certain changes are being made.
  • The same person who was comforted by an emergency response may be upset by a permanent change, even when the item in question is the same. In the pandemic, many people’s expectation has been that eventually everything will return to the way it was. If this is not the case, they may react negatively at first.
  • Assuming people will react positively to conversion without building a case risks stressing people. Be transparent around the reasons for these decisions.
  • Has an expectation been set that the goal is to get back to how it was before? Is that consistent with reality now? Do employees understand the intention? Communicate throughout the process so that no one feels blindsided by seemingly sudden changes.

This past year has been one of change across the board – some good and some not so good. With the understanding that your employees and members have likely endured a total upheaval of their personal and professional lives, it’s important to carefully assess which emergency responses will be made permanent post-pandemic, be intentional and transparent with the reasoning behind any decisions made, and communicate those changes effectively. After strategic discussions with leadership and buy-in from all stakeholders, the changes made have the potential to be transformative to credit unions and shape the future of the industry.

Jeff Paille is a Partner at The Bonadio Group. He started his career at Bonadio, then spent five years at a multi-billion-dollar credit union, returning to the firm’s audit practice in 2006. This experience informs Jeff’s approach to client service; he sees the service plan from the client’s perspective and expresses financial results in an understandable and meaningful manner to both management personnel and board volunteers.

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