Is Your Credit Union Ready For A Remote-Only Workforce?

Three senior executives at a CUSO with a predominately remote workforce offer words of wisdom for cooperatives considering the future of their office operations.

 
 

Starting a company in the middle of the Great Recession provided its share of challenges. But for Credit Union Student Choice, a higher education financing service organization founded in 2008, the timing proved opportune. As some legacy players tightened standards, the market for fair-value private student loans grew quickly and accelerated Student Choice’s business operations faster than its initial estimates.

“In a short period of time, we were working with several dozen credit unions that recognized a real need for low-cost student loan funding,” says Scott Patterson, president and CEO of Student Choice. “For us, we needed to be sure we were growing smartly, and we needed the best talent we could find.”  

4 Pieces Of Advice For Credit Union Leaders …

“Build structures and practices quickly,” advises Jason Tanaka, the CTO at Student Choice. “It won’t be perfect right away, but there are some key concerns to build structure around.” Adopt, then adapt, these four.

  • Expectations: Collaboratively define and refine them.
  • Health: If don’t see someone’s baggy eyes and witness their mood swings, how will you know they are losing sleep over stress?
  • Personal Connection: Establish one-on-one meetings; make video the preferred channel.
  • Fun: Host a virtual happy hour or start meetings with a bit of casual conversation to provide a break for people.

At that time, companies that financed student loans were pulling back or exiting the space entirely, freeing up experienced staff for Student Choice to bring into the fold. Student Choice, however, is based in Washington DC, and the available talent was spread across the country. The CUSO couldn’t expect many potential new hires to relocate, but because the company was growing quickly and looking to add new employees to keep apace, the CUSO adapted to create a compelling proposition.

“We decided to adopt a remote work policy in 2008 and make that a significant benefit of working for the CUSO,” Patterson says. “This enabled us to expand our reach for seasoned talent nationally without the obstacle of relocation that is not realistic for many individuals and their families.”  

Early on, Student Choice hired people from Texas, Iowa, Illinois, Colorado, and New York, which allowed the organization to tap into proven talent and experience beyond what was available locally. Since then, Student Choice’s senior team has primarily worked remotely.  

“As a result of this approach, we have been able to bring some of the best and brightest experience in this unique area of lending to help credit unions succeed,” Patterson says. “It would have been a huge challenge to have assembled a team with this student lending background and caliber within just the DC area.”  

As some credit unions face the possibility of a remote-first future, three Student Choice executives —   Patterson, chief operations officer Melissa Hunt, and chief technology officer Jason Tanaka — offer best practices and words of wisdom for how to make the most out of a remote team structure.

Scott Patterson, CEO

Scott Patterson is the CEO of Student Choice. Along with Jon Jeffreys, President & CEO of Callahan & Associates, Patterson co-founded Student Choice in 2008. He assumed the dedicated role of CEO in 2014 and works out of the company’s office in Washington, DC.  

Scott Patterson, CEO, Credit Union Student Choice

On Expectations …

“This was a new experience and concept for all of us. Remote work didn’t have much traction in the financial services world at that time, especially not as a primary business model for talent acquisition and retention. It was a calculated risk, but we knew we were going to learn from it and be able to evaluate it quickly. The evaluation didn’t last long. It was clear that, with the right talent, it would work well — even if we had more to learn and our business partners had to become accustomed to it.”

On Making It Work …

“We screen significantly during the interview process to ensure remote work is going to work for the applicant. It’s one thing to believe you can work from home, but have you done it before? Is it a good fit? 

“Ultimately, remote work works best for certain types of personalities. If someone thrives in an office environment with co-workers, then the transition is going to be a more difficult. Someone might like working from home for a little while, but how long will they feel that way? We expect our employees are accomplishing what we’ve set out for them at a high-caliber level in an appropriate timeframe. We want our employees to use their time and resources to the best of their ability and in the best interests of the organization.”

On The Importance Of Communication …

“We’ve learned there is no such thing as too much communication in a virtual environment. Even before the pandemic, we held in-person all-staff meetings twice per year, and our executive team met in-person every month for up to three days to make decisions and review strategy. Every Friday, we had a standing conference call where the executive team checked in with one another. Now, we’ve instituted a walking call from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. every day where we ask our executive team to grab a headset, walk around the neighborhood, and simply touch base.  These kinds of processes facilitate recurring team engagement, build culture, and are examples of what is occurring across the organization. 

“We are trying to be deliberate in ensuring communication is flowing as much as possible, so our employees know they are part of an organization that cares about them and their place in the company. We don’t want our team to feel like they’re on an island in their home office. At the end of the day, we’re an organization made up of people, and for our organization to succeed, everyone has to be on the same page and supporting one another.”

On What’s Next …

“As a society, we’re proving we can work remotely. But I think, realistically, post-pandemic we’ll see more of a hybrid approach between the traditional in-office set-up and full-time remote. Not all roles lend themselves well to remote work and there are trade-offs. That’s why we opened our operations center in San Antonio. If there’s a role that requires more hands-on training and in-person collaboration or is filled by a new hire, it might be hard to replicate the same effectiveness and productivity when they start that role from home. 

“Coming out of the pandemic, you’re going to have many organizations, including credit unions, that will attract and retain talent by being open to remote positions, but it will depend on the role and the expectations from the organization. We’re only several months into the pandemic. At some point down the line, you will have employees in your own organization who get tired of working remotely – this is perhaps especially relevant in regards to having a conducive work environment and more frequent interactions with colleagues.  At some point, the glamour of not having a commute or dressing up for the office will wear off for many.”

Melissa Hunt, COO

Melissa Hunt was the first employee Student Choice hired after its founding in 2008. At that time, Hunt had 18 years of experience working for credit unions in Florida and Texas. As the chief operations officer, today, she remotely manages the organization’s operations staff, who have worked from a shared operations center in San Antonio since 2019. When the center reopens, Hunt will manage the team in person for the first time. 

Melissa Hunt, COO, Credit Union Student Choice

On Managing A Remote Team …

“I trust my team. I trust what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. I don’t have standing calls with my direct reports. Instead, I start each week with a blank sticky note. By the end of the week, the name of every one of my managers or vice presidents needs to be on that note, meaning I’ve spoken with them. A week might sound like a long time, especially for someone who is used to an office set-up where they can see everyone every day, but it’s really not.”

On The Qualities Of Successful Remote Employees …

“We’ve been successful in how we hire. We have at least three employees interview each new hire, in addition to HR, to determine cultural fit. Do they have the ability and motivation to work from home? It becomes evident quickly if they’re not cut out for it. It can be little things, such as they take too long to answer the phone or they don’t have a dedicated workspace. Employees might be working remotely, but we want their set-up to mimic how it might look if they were in an office. To that end, we created a work-from-home policy to clarify our expectations.

Want to see Student Choice’s policy regarding working from home? Click here to download it.

On Changing Perspectives …

“The challenge a credit union is going to have is that it didn’t hire its staff to work remotely, so it didn’t screen for certain qualities. They might be great employees in an office set-up and struggle if they’re moved remote. So, does the credit union only allow some employees to work from home and not others? That’s a challenge. 

“Ultimately, a credit union should take a business perspective. How we do business has changed. Is an employee on board with that? Is the credit union providing the right tools for employees to succeed in this new environment? If the answer to either of these questions is no, something has to change. You almost have to remove the emotion from the work-from-home decision. Businesses evolve, frameworks change, the credit union you were yesterday is not the one you are today or will be tomorrow.” 

Jason Tanaka, CTO

Jason Tanaka started at Student Choice in October 2019. As the chief technology officer, he is responsible for driving the overall technology strategy for the CUSO. Although he had worked from home in the past, he had never worked in a fully remote capacity until taking this position. 

Jason Tanaka, CTO, Credit Union Student Choice

On Remote Versus In-Office Work …

“I had expected some of the common breakdowns of remote work, such as missing out on conversations because someone didn’t think about setting up a call-in or feeling disconnected from non-work conversations that help build relationships. But having a largely remote team allows for a different set of expectations. 

“We share many of the same concerns and work together to resolve them. The process of building personal relationships is key to trust in organizations, so habits such as spending real time on work calls talking about our lives, our families, and the world around us helps to bridge that.”

On Building Relationships …

“In less than a year here, I believe I’ve made some personal connections and built relationships with many individuals I commonly interact with. I don’t recall a single time where someone forgot to invite me to something because I was remote. When everyone is remote and you want to get a group on a call, you have to think about who should attend. Isolation is a significant risk of remote working, so these types of inclusionary activities are paramount.

“It’s easy to miss the introverts because, in an office environment, they will often be included in a conversation by proximity, where they can join a conversation that starts up about football, for example. Those casual group interactions are rare and different when remote. However, spending time having real-life, non-work conversations helps fuel relationships, and sharing in the common breakdowns and successes we have together while remote helps bridge those gaps.”

On The Qualities Of Successful Remote Workers And Managers …

“Remote workers — including managers — need to be able to focus. It’s easy to get distracted by housework, emails, messages, and our own minds. The ability to move in and out of tasks and stay focused when needed is critical. Part of staying focused is taking appropriate breaks, too.

“For managers, it’s important to ensure you aren’t measuring productivity by hours worked. Measuring and paying people was designed during the original industrial revolution when people were meant to augment machines. That’s not how professionals today typically choose to be led. Instead, collaboratively defining outcomes and expectations with each person enables a remote workforce to excel autonomously within the framework you have created with them. 

“Keeping a pulse on workload and stress also is key. It’s common for individuals to feel overwhelmed when they feel they have a lot of work to do and they are alone in that work. Ensuring they are aware of others on the team and the overall group effort is important. Building appropriate social communication is critical as well. When remote employees feel connected beyond just the task at hand, it increases their overall engagement and satisfaction.”

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