Bank safety measures evolve well beyond hand sanitizer

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Back when restaurants were packed, hosts might control a crush of walk-in diners by handing out small devices that buzzed when a table was ready.

Wells Fargo has invented something similar to encourage social distancing among customers who are waiting outside branches without an appointment. It’s called the Digital Waitlist: When customers show up without an appointment and the branch is at capacity, they can scan a QR code posted outside the door using their smartphone, fill in their reason for visiting, and see an estimated wait time. Customers are free to head elsewhere until they get a text telling them it’s their turn to enter.

“We’re using something you already have and already find convenient to let you know when it’s your turn to come into the branch,” said Jason Martin, senior vice president and digital and ATM leader for consumer and small-business banking at Wells Fargo.

The product, which took two months to develop in-house and is now being used in 400 branches, is one way banks are turning to apps and other tools to manage the risks associated with reopening branches and offices. Financial institutions are also readying apps to notify employees of exposure to infected individuals, upgrading their ATMs to keep high-touch surfaces clean and taking other innovative steps.

It's a challenge that bankers have been thinking about for months. In an April survey by Deloitte, 64% of the 100 financial services executives who participated said that they would bring employees back to work based on role or function.

“Costs are going up substantially for businesses of all sizes, including banks, due to COVID,” said Tom Riccio, division president at Deluxe Corp., a technology company that works with small businesses and financial institutions. “If they can help manage the costs [of protective products] by implementing technology, that’s going to be much more cost-effective in the long run.”

Figuring out safer ways for customers to interact with bankers in close quarters is important because sensitive conversations often take place in private spaces.

“You walk into many branches today and you’re lucky if the office is even six feet wide,” said Riccio. “How will you manage that privacy and personal aspect of banking in the constraints you currently have within your footprint?”

Many financial institutions are quiet about the strategies they are pursuing, but here is a sampling of emerging technologies that some banks are exploring.

Testing and tracing

There are two types of contact tracing for apps, said Robert Cattanach, a partner at the law firm Dorsey & Whitney. Bluetooth can be used to alert people if they come within a certain distance of someone else who is diagnosed with COVID-19, but without disclosing their identities. Apps that depend on geolocation are less private.

In the U.S., there has been very little rollout of contact tracing and employees may feel that it’s invasive. “I think financial institutions are still grappling with what balance to strike,” said Cattanach. “How much information do we collect and share?”

PwC chose the Bluetooth route when it began building its Check-In contact-tracing app in late March and early April. It uses a combination of Wi-Fi signals and Bluetooth to gauge proximity and measure duration of exposure for users in a branch or office.

Since launching in June, the app has been deployed by 50 users, including those in financial services.

PwC used geographic ring-fencing to ensure that tracing kicks in only when employees are in a defined area, such as an office building, rather than following their movements outside of work. Employees won’t get push notifications; instead, the data is collected behind the scenes and the employer can decide what degrees of exposure merit a notification, such as spending more than 15 minutes within six feet of a colleague who tested positive.

“Instead of having to notify everyone in the building that there has been a positive case, it’s allowed a much greater degree of precision so a company can communicate who has been exposed and the level of exposure,” said Alie Hoover, banking transformation lead at PwC U.S.

Sterling, a provider of background and identity services, recently launched a COVID-19 testing program for employees who must return to the office. Companies can decide on their testing strategy (for example, whether they want employees to get tested at a clinic or using an at-home kit) and Sterling will coordinate the process with its lab partners, email employees with instructions, store the results securely on its platform and aggregate reports.

Joy Henry, general manager of the financial and business services group at Sterling, estimates that banks are currently keeping 30% to 50% of their employee populations in the office at one time, depending on office space. The company says it is working with banks in the U.S. that are household names.

Some ideas are promising but not yet vetted for banks. For example, density sensors that alert management when there are too many people in one area are popping up. But some consider a space’s entire square footage without considering how the square footage is broken up, such as by dividers, said Riccio of Deluxe.

Surfaces and spaces

The research and development department of the ATM provider Hyosung America consulted with scientists to come up with reliable methods to keep high-touch surfaces hygienic.

As a temporary fix, Hyosung is offering a liquid anti-microbial coating that will prevent the growth and spread of viruses and bacteria and last for months, according to the company. The coating can be applied by technicians doing preventative maintenance.

Hyosung began offering this service this month, and dozens of customers have started the purchase process, said Bill Budde, vice president of product marketing of Hyosung America.

Hyosung is also manufacturing “upgrade kits,” where silver ions are incorporated into the materials on three high-touch surfaces to inhibit microbe growth: the glass of the touchscreen, the plastic or metal of the fascia (the parts surrounding the screen, card reader and PIN pad) and the resin in keypads. Eventually, the company plans to incorporate this feature into new machines as they are produced.

“Embedding those silver ions in the materials makes it a permanent feature of that piece of plastic or paint or resin or glass as opposed to the coating, which is a temporary fix,” said Budde.

Hyosung plans to start installing these new parts in the fourth quarter of 2020.

Although these changes were formulated during the current crisis, the company suspects they will continue to serve a purpose for more mundane seasonal illnesses. “The prospect of bacteria and viruses spreading has always been there, and there have been various levels of concern from the general public around cleanliness,” said Budde. “The current coronavirus situation has shone a light on how important some of those sanitization capabilities can be.”

Diebold Nixdorf, the maker of ATMs and other bank technology, has worked with several bank customers to redesign the layout of branches through its product application services group, said Simon Powley, head of global advisory consultant services at Diebold. Banks are leaning more towards pods with Plexiglas and desks, to create a safety barrier, rather than traditional teller lines.

First Citizens National Bank in Dyersburg, Tenn., uses a pod layout. The $1.9 billion-asset community bank is also working with Diebold and its core vendor, FIS Horizon, to develop an interface for new In-Lobby Teller machines for 2021. The ILTs allow for more self-service transactions and contain a button where customers can summon an employee with an iPad for help if needed. The new machines will also have video capabilities.

This initiative began before the pandemic, but has only become more relevant.

“We feel like we will be even more prepared to keep branches open with automated ILTs in bank lobbies and outside in drive-throughs even if we don’t get a vaccine this year,” said Judy Long, president and chief operating officer at First Citizens.

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Coronavirus COVID-19 Branch banking Wells Fargo Digital banking Diebold Nixdorf ATMs Digital Banking 2020