Did the Pandemic Promote Changes in Branch Prototypes?

seamstress working on a coat on a mannequin
Contributing Writer
member of Bellco Credit Union

3 minutes

Not really. Credit unions have seen more of an evolution than a revolution in their physical locations.

Because similar functions are usually needed at each location, credit union branches are often built based on a prototype. Has something as disruptive as a pandemic that forced branch closures changed the fundamental prototype most credit unions are using? While a typical credit union branch prototype has changed over the past 20 years, experts seem to agree that shift hasn’t been driven faster or onto a different course by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Branch prototypes developed before COVID-19 are still valid because they were built to be flexible and space-conscious, says Jenny Bengeult, EVP/director of design for CUES Supplier member Momentum, a design-build company based in Seattle. 

“They can be sized up or down, depending on needs,” she says. Current prototypes generally call for less space but more adaptable space, she notes. “You probably don’t need a large lobby in most locations, or space for long transactional queues. You need space for conversations and small meetings or even space that can be reconfigured for larger seminars or community meetings,” she explains.

Even before the pandemic, “we were already headed in the right direction—smaller footprints, more self-serve automation, fewer teller lines,” says Jim Burson, managing director of CUES strategic partner Cornerstone Advisors, Scottsdale, Arizona. “Credit unions would like to mimic the Apple stores, but it doesn’t really fit financial institutions that have no tangible products to sell.”

Back in 2006, $496 million JAX Federal Credit Union, Jacksonville, Florida, was a leader in branch redesign, reports Mary Svoboda, interim president/CEO. It added cash recyclers to teller stations, switched from teller lines to pods, eliminating barriers between members and tellers. Those branches were ready for business when COVID-19 restrictions were eased in Florida—with a few safety precautions in place, including acrylic shields between staff and members. Without barriers, how were the “sneeze guards” installed? “We hung them from the ceiling,” Svoboda reports, “suspended them from the ceiling tiles. That worked just fine.”

Aside from some industry leaders, the prototypical branch of the future has remained more concept than reality, reports Rolland Johannsen, senior consulting associate at Capital Performance Group LLC, a CUES Supplier member in Washington, D.C. “Branches have actually changed very little in the past 10 to 15 years,” he insists. “The talk has been about making them more strategic, home to higher-value activities, but that hasn’t happened. It takes new people, new skills, new training, new titles, new job descriptions, new compensation, a different operation. Recovering from COVID gives financial institutions a chance to actually do it.”

Or avoid doing it, says Steve Reider, president of CUES Supplier member Bancography, Birmingham, Alabama. There was a fad for open floor plans and no teller lines years ago, but that fad failed to deliver, he asserts. 

“People were confused by the unfamiliar structure,” he points out. “They didn’t know where to go for their business, so concierges were introduced, which was an additional expense,” he explains. Teller lines will survive at most branches, he predicts, but supported with technology like cash recyclers, and so will offices with doors that can be closed.

Richard H. Gamble writes from Grand Junction, Colorado.

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