Branch Design

The Personal Touch Might Be On Pause, But It's Not Gone Forever

Walkup Windows Not Likely To Make A Return, NES Head Predicts

George Yacik

July 22, 2020

Charter Oak Credit Union lobby

NES Group has helped hundreds of banks and credit unions implement their brand identity through design while gaining customer recognition. The firm specializes in designing and building functional facilities that have a customer friendly atmosphere and which complement the surrounding area.

Gregg H. Rosen, president and principal Mansfield, Massachusetts-based NES Group, spoke with Banking New England about the future of the branch after COVID-19 and what it will look like. Rosen brings over 30 years of experience and knowledge to his leadership role at NES Group.

Q. What is the biggest change going to be for bank branches after COVID-19?

A. Prior to COVID-19, bank branches were transforming and progressing in a more interactive and technology-based versus a transactive manner. Universal sales agents were cross trained to focus more on face-to-face conversations from the moment the customer entered the branch. This allowed them to get to know the customer or member on a more personal basis to grow their loyalty and offer more solutions and services.

Unfortunately, since COVID-19, there will be changes that need to be made to make sure that the customer or member feels safe, but this does not mean going backwards. COVID-19 has been a harsh reminder to nearly every industry that we can have a bump in the road, but we must plan to continue to move forward and progress.

We learned a very large lesson that we must be prepared to have the technology in place to allow businesses to run at all times even during a pandemic. Branches must have the technology to allow 24/7 access to their accounts, and banks and credit unions must have a formal plan in place to handle operations during every event that faces us.

Now, as the world begins to reopen its doors, we must be able to make people feel safe and back at home at their local branch. Though the faces may look a little different with masks on, and appointments may be preferred due to limited occupancy, it will not change the at-home feeling we want our customers to always have.

There will be other changes – the interior of the branch will have some distinct new features, like social distancing signs, decals on the floor telling people where to stand, multiple hand sanitizer stations, and sneeze/cough guards to name a few, but it will still be your local branch ready to serve you. Safety will be the number one priority, but close behind that will be continued education on how customers can use the technology in place to always have access to their accounts.

Q. What aspect of the branch has gone away forever?

A. I don’t like to say that things go away forever because sometimes things just get put on temporary hold. For instance, many of us assumed the colors of the 70s and 80s were gone, but now they are making a comeback.

Q. How is security affected with new bank branches? Does less people in a branch make them less safe or more so?

A. It feels like a double-edged sword. When we think about safety precautions outlined by the CDC and local and state guidelines, wearing masks is now required when you go out in public. This would normally trigger a big red flag in a branch. Prior to COVID-19, a person wearing a mask into a branch would most likely result in pressing an emergency silent alarm and asking questions later. Now we are breaking the law if we do not wear one. This will create the need for new policies and procedures on how to allow masks to be worn while keeping the branch safe from both criminals and COVID-19.

When it comes to how many people can enter at one time and will customers and members be safer with more or less people, this decision will be guided by each states’ phasing plan and guidelines. Calculations will be based on the number of customers divided by your lobby square footage.

The goal is to not overwhelm a lobby with too many people but to keep everyone safe and abiding by the social distancing guidelines. If the guidelines are followed, and your staff has been trained and your lobbies prepared with safety precautions, including proper cleaning, it is everyone’s hope that we will all be safe.

Q. Is the walk-up window going to make a return? How challenging are those to construct?

A. Since the pandemic began, we have spoken to hundreds of our clients. Many of those conversations have turned into long discussions about when they will reopen and what changes may be needed to open safely. I can count on only one hand how many clients asked me about a walk-up window.

In my 34 years of being in this industry I have replaced one walk-up window, and that was 30 years ago. Walk-up windows may seem like a safer solution from a social distancing standpoint, but it is not an overall safer solution in the grand scheme of things. Walk-up windows come with challenges, such as finding the right place for the window to make sure that people using them are safe from cars and other pedestrians.

Today, as we build smaller branches, space becomes an issue on where to locate a walk-up window and how to service it with staff. Unfortunately, one cannot compare a walk-up window at a bank or credit union to a walk-up window at an ice cream or coffee shop.

Q. Are drive-in windows going to make a comeback, or was this only a temporary measure?

A. For some banks and credit unions drive-in windows have never gone away. The thinking is that the personal touch still matters. They feel it is important to be able to have their customers and members be able to drive-up and personally interact with someone––see a face and hear a voice. This is not to say that it is everyone’s philosophy, as we know the ATM, and now ITMs, have become the solution for replacing drive-up windows, but not everyone believes it is time to say good bye to them …yet.

With that said, having a drive-up window has been a savior for many banks and credit unions to be able to conduct business during this time. Additionally, as our doors reopen, people will be hesitant and they will be nervous, and though we plan to follow the rules and regulations that have been set forth by the states and the CDC, we also want people to be able to get back to their normal banking experience. For some people this may mean staying in their car.

Q. Some bank presidents are hesitant to reopen their branches because appointments alone don’t protect employees. What is your sense on that issue? Will branches reopen slowly?

A. We closed our branches because it was the safe and right thing to do, and we will reopen our branches because it is the safe and right thing to do. This pandemic put a halt to how society functions and lives normally because the world needed to be safe, but it is now time to slowly and safely reopen society. Though there may be a “new normal” for a while, we cannot allow this pandemic to stop us from living our lives, as long as we do it safely and follow the rules and regulations. Appointments may not be the only solution.

Our goal must be to offer our customers and members options so we are all safe. They can visit the branch by appointment or walk in based on what their state guidelines allow. And of course use technology. While people are being pushed towards the digital age, there is so much to be said for face-to-face interactions.

I think something that many people have learned throughout this pandemic is how much they crave and need human interactions, and we are going to continue to make that possible.

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