How Does A People-First Culture Fare During The Pandemic?

Dallas-based Advancial has moved its entire back-office team to remote work. Its office space and personnel structure might never be the same, but the credit union is focused on ensuring its culture.

 
 

Top-Level Takeaways

  • Advancial’s remote work handbook includes tips and tricks as well as formal guidelines.
  • Back-office employees are fully remote, and whereas connectivity is not a concern, the disintegration of culture is.

The pandemic has forced credit unions and other businesses across the United States to send employees home and transition into a remote-work environment. Luckily for Dallas-based Advancial Federal Credit Union ($1.8B, Dallas, TX), it’s had a formal remote work program in place since early 2018. That bit of familiarity helped mitigate the disruption resulting from last year’s unexpected operational shift.

Olivia Thurmond, VP of HR, Advancial FCU

“We think we’ve done a great job responding to the pandemic, and our employees’ efforts are the main reason,” says Olivia Thurmond, Advancial’s vice president of human resources. “That’s not to say there haven’t been challenges,”

Smaller But Similar

Two years ago, Advancial digitized certain processes and ironed out technology wrinkles to make remote work easier. At the time, the credit union also started allowing back-office staff to work from home.

To prepare its remote staff for all aspects of the new working arrangement, Advancial also created an employee handbook that provides a detailed reference for at-home processes as well as sets forth expectations and requirements to ensure productivity and professionalism, which is especially important for those who’ve never worked outside the office.

“How should you set up your workstation at home? How do you connect to the VPN? How do you process certain documents without a printer or scanner?” Thurmond says. “Not everyone has experienced all the various questions that come up in remote work. We wanted this to be a reference for that person.”

CU QUICK FACTS

Advancial FCU
Data as of 09.30.20

HQ: Dallas, TX
ASSETS: $1.8B
MEMBERS: 97,229
BRANCHES: 14
12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 8.2%
12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 4.8%
ROA: 0.63%

And it was, however, the credit union still limited its remote work opportunities. Employees worked remote only one or two days per week. In addition, it required employees to come into the office at least one day per week, typically Wednesday when most organizational meetings or events were scheduled.

“We wanted to make sure culture wasn’t disrupted by providing too much flexibility,” Thurmond says.

Then COVID-19 hit and changed all that.

Advancial sent home approximately 85% of its non-front-line staff in March (certain paper-related positions are not conducive to remote work), and they’ve operated in a remote work environment since. But the credit union hasn’t missed a beat, says Thurmond. In large part that’s because Advancial employees are comfortable at home, but the credit union also built a positive remote work culture in the years leading up to an otherwise challenging 2020.

Today, Thurmond and the rest of the team at Advancial are keen to continue cultivating that culture as the calendar turns to 2021.

The credit union’s headquarters occupy two stories of a high-rise office building in downtown Dallas. Next year, Advancial’s lease comes up, bringing forward a question that many businesses will answer in the years ahead: What happens to the office?

“Whatever we end up doing will look similar to what we have now, just at a smaller scale.”

Olivia Thurmond, VP of Human Resources, Advancial FCU

Plans are not finalized, but whether Advancial decides to maintain a heavily-remote environment or return to its more traditional operational setup, Advancial must then consider whether it needs to keep its current real estate footprint.

The credit union doesn’t want its employees to feel unmoored. Even if they’re working from home most of the time, a traditional office to work from on occasion would provide a sense of stability. That set up might include personal desks as well as break rooms and outdoor space for employees to mix and mingle.

“Nothing has been finalized. But whatever we end up doing will look similar to what we have now, just at a smaller scale,” Thurmond says.

Back To Face-To-Face

From an HR perspective, Advancial has made things work these past several months. Still, Thurmond is eager for the day when face-to-face becomes normal again. According to the VP, a return to that kind of normalcy will have trickle-down affects across the organization — starting with recruiting.

“We’re such a people organization,” Thurmond says. “First impressions are important to us for getting new hires into the organization.”

Training has historically been culture-forward, as well. Large groups of new hires shared training rooms, learned processes and systems, and bonded in their earliest days at Advancial. In the past, new hires spent one week — and sometimes two — at headquarters, where the credit union worked to pair education with experience. Its training team provided a deep dive for the new hires before tagging in HR and managers for cultural training. HR and managers would then introduce new hires to others in the organization and take them out to lunch to get to know them on a personal level.

The pandemic has disrupted that kind of training.

In the new virtual environment, lunch is one of the many challenges Advancial has tackled. Virtual brown bags, for example, have proven to be valuable but can’t fully replicate the in-person experience.

“The conversation isn’t as fluid,” Thurmond says.

Likewise, training behind a computer screen can mask different speeds of learning or allow new hires to more easily hide when they are having difficulties, which makes it challenging to offer more assistance to those who need it.

“When you’re behind a computer you can hide, you can be easily distracted,” Thurmond says.

Finding ways to breakthrough that disconnectedness, whether through video or screensharing, will help to alleviate those concerns. Returning to in-person training will, too, but that might be months away. For now, Advancial is noting the lessons it learned from 2020 and will apply them when the world returns to a more normal state.

“We’ll continue to work to bring our employees experiences wherever they are,” Thurmond says. “But we are a people organization first and foremost. And we always will be.”

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