Crisis mode provides another lesson for banks, not a life sentence

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What is the new normal?

It’s a question we’re all confronted with as everyone was shocked into the coronavirus pandemic, forcing change on regular routines and practices.

However, calling something normal suggests permanence. The idea that a bulk of the changes to bank operations that were compelled by a sudden, unprecedented threat will become permanent can be demoralizing to teams. But I’d suggest it’s not as likely as some fear now.

In recently speaking with bankers across the country, from both big and small institutions, I found they are universally proud of how their teams have responded to the pandemic. I’ve yet to find anyone, however, who is content with the present situation.

If this is the new normal, many want nothing of it. But I suspect this pandemic response is more of an event, not a new normal.

Can it happen again? Sure. Responses next time, however, will be more coordinated and less disruptive.

We experience. We learn. We adapt.

Living on the Gulf Coast most of my life, this pandemic feels similar to how leaders and citizens react during the recurring threat of hurricanes. Those out west living in areas vulnerable to forest fires likely experience similar dynamics.

As for residents in hurricane-prone zones, there are folks who become consumed as soon as a tropical depression forms in the Atlantic Ocean. If a “forecast cone” shows a storm heading remotely in their direction, they begin buying bottled water, batteries and canned goods.

Others figure the odds are in their favor and go about their days without giving the threat much thought. One person will be prepping for a coming apocalypse and their next-door neighbor will be barbecuing in the backyard.

People are given the same information on the same possible danger and can have widely different assessments of the threat level.

Leaders, on the other hand, are responsible for others. They err on the side of caution. In some ways, their jobs are to worry about people who may not be worried enough. In the case of most recurring threats, however, there are protocols learned that are useful over time. Sometimes there aren’t.

I recall Hurricane Rita in 2005. It was the most intense tropical cyclone ever measured in the Gulf of Mexico. As it headed toward the Texas coast, authorities told the Houston area to evacuate . . . now. It was the largest such evacuation in U.S. history.

My family — and roughly 2.5 million other people — heeded the warnings and left our homes. We then spent 19 hours gridlocked on an interstate as a hurricane churned steadily toward us. It was a harrowing experience. Thankfully, the roads cleared shortly before the storm made landfall east of Houston.

An unforeseen result of the emergency orders, however, was that more people perished attempting to evacuate than as a direct result of the storm. And while there was initial finger-pointing going on after the event, rational people soon realized that folks made the best decisions they could with the information they had at the time. Some situations are called unprecedented for a reason.

Importantly, new emergency protocols were adopted to allow everyone to be better prepared for a similar crisis in the future. Subsequent evacuations have been far more coordinated and less chaotic.

It’s important for bankers to help teams grasp that some of the operational and staffing practices utilized in this emergency may be adopted going forward. Sometimes better practices are discovered when forced to come up with new practices.

It’s entirely possible that a noticeable portion of your customer base will begin relying on remote banking more than ever. It’s also quite possible that customers dealing with a slowed economy and stressful times will desire to sit down with their bankers more than ever. Both things can be true.

The normal we return to will look noticeably different from the one being experienced now. Yes, it may take a few weeks or months, and new practices will likely be phased out more gradually than when they were implemented.

But these experiences, and a little time, will give everyone the ability to be more prepared for — and less panicked about — future crises.

The core of banking has always been people helping people when, how and where they need it. That’s the normal. It will not change.

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