Banks see telecommuting as chance to gain recruiting edge

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It took some time for Natalie Bartholomew, chief marketing officer at Grand Savings Bank in Grove, Okla., to get used to working from her dining room table.

When she joined the $441 million-asset Grand Savings, Bartholomew was given the option to work from home, as needed, to avoid having her burn out from a lengthy commute. She typically works from home a couple days each week, which allows her to spend time with her family — including two young sons — that would otherwise be spent idling in her car.

“Having the flexibility to work from home has been a game changer for me,” Bartholomew said. “It’s enabled me to remain present and involved without feeling guilty for not being in the office.”

Banks are slowly warming up to the benefits of telecommuting, particularly as technology and security protocols evolve to make it easier to offer, industry experts said. While customer-facing roles should be based in a branch or office, there is a growing belief that banks must consider telecommuting to attract and retain talent in operational, technology and customer service areas.

There will be a “price to pay” for banks that refuse to implement remote working, as more industries embrace the concept, said Robert Voth, a managing director in Russell Reynolds Associates’ consumer financial services practice.

“They will lose out on a subset of talented workers,” Voth said.

More than half of community bank CEOs who responded to a recent American Bankers Association study said it is difficult to recruit people with the necessary leadership skills. Offering remote working could be critical to attracting the next generation of workers, said Rod Taylor, CEO of Taylor Mead, an executive recruiting and law firm in Atlanta.

Berkshire Hills Bancorp in Boston embraced telecommuting after it expanded outside of western Massachusetts, said Sean Gray, the $12 billion-asset company’s chief operating officer.

“It’s interesting to see the eyes [of job candidates] light up when they hear" that we support telecommuting, Gray said, adding that the move has helped with retention and recruitment. “That has been a deciding factor in our ability to acquire those individuals we would have been in a competitive bid for.”

About 30% of Berkshire's more than 2,000 employees have the ability to telecommute, Gray said.

“I would anticipate that the percentage would increase,” he said.

Larger banks are more apt to offer remote working, industry watchers said. Voth said bigger companies have an easier time retaining employees who don’t live near their headquarters because of brands that often reach more markets.

Take SunTrust Banks in Atlanta, for example. Some of its employees, like those who handle customer calls concerning fraud, are entirely remote. Others have the option to occasionally work remotely.

The $205 billion-asset company recently opened a co-working site in Kennesaw, Ga., about 30 miles north of Atlanta, that is designed to address the city's notoriously bad traffic. Called SunWorks, the space can accommodate up to 100 employees. It was designed with employee feedback, including features like standing desks, outdoor work space and dual monitors, said Amy Collins, director of SunTrust’s CEO office.

“They’re reducing their commute, but they’re also in a SunTrust environment and working among other groups they may never see,” Collins said. “We’re structured in our home campus with marketing on one floor, HR is on another floor, finance is on another floor. In this environment, everyone’s together.”

As bigger banks look to adopt remote options, smaller banks, especially those with limited geography, could struggle to follow suit, Voth said.

“There’s just an inherent struggle in building affinity and loyalty — let alone culture — if an executive and or midlevel manager is in a [place] where there's zero connectivity to the bank,” Voth said.

Some are experimenting on a case-by-case basis nonetheless.

The $212 million-asset NSB Bank in Mason City, Iowa, allows its chairman and IT staff to telecommute.

Similarly, Molly Carpenter, vice president of marketing and public relations at the $440 million-asset FNBC in Ash Flat, Ark., works from home. Carpenter, the daughter of FNBC's chairman, began working remotely when she moved to a more urban part of the state over three hours away.

For banks that want to offer a remote work option, it’s important to invest in tools that will help those employees do their jobs remotely, said Dale Johnson, a managing director at Novantas.

That includes videoconferencing abilities, proper security protocols, paperless workflows and assigned laptops.

“The near-term objective is really to create mobile enablement," Johnson said.

Carpenter said it is easier than she expected to work securely from home. She logs onto a virtual private network from her laptop, and uses software that lets her answer calls through her computer so she could keep the same phone number and extension.

Regulators have warmed up to telecommuting at banks in recent years as technology and firewalls have improved, said Lynn David, CEO of Community Bank Consulting Services.

"We have such a tight employment situation in the U.S. today that you have to do everything possible to attract and retain your high-quality people," David said, adding that more employees, especially in younger generations, want to telecommute.

"It's something that has to be looked at, but you have to make sure you have security covered," David said.

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