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HUNTINGTON — Some businesses have said they can see a future for some employees working remotely from home permanently, but some local bank executives are voicing the need for employees to return to the office to maintain company culture, promote better collaboration and innovation, and to also ensure production and quality of work.

“I have always felt like when you are sharing time together at the office collaboration comes into effect that you don’t get when you are working at home or remotely,” said Huntington Federal Saving Bank President and CEO Matthew Wagner. “To me, there’s an advantage of sitting in a room together and working in an office together versus having a virtual meeting for an hour. I really do think that’s when some of the best work and ideas happen.”

Wagner said at the beginning of the pandemic, Huntington Federal decided the best thing was to work half the staff at the bank offices and the other half would work remotely.

“We alternated those employees every week for three months, but our return-to-work plan was to bring all employees back as soon as we could,” he said. “We installed plexiglass at all teller stations and desks, added hand sanitizing station, increased disinfecting clean up in high traffic areas with our janitorial service and mandated all employees and those entering the building to wear masks.”

He said the bank had protocols for any employee who felt ill.

“Depending on their symptoms, we would ask them to get tested for the virus and to stay home until they got the results back,” he said. “If they tested positive, they stayed home until they had a negative test. We did that for months and we paid our folks throughout the entire pandemic.”

Wagner said the bank is making time during the day for employees to get vaccinated, but it’s not considering any type of vaccine mandate.

“It’s entirely the employee’s decision, but we do recommend it,” he said. “Anything short of the federal government ordering mandatory vaccination, I personally wouldn’t feel about right asking someone to take a vaccination that had thoughtfully chosen that they don’t want to do so.”

Wagner says while the bank proved it could do a blended model of remote work from home and work at the office, he felt it was important for employees to return to the office to maintain company culture, promote better collaboration and innovation and ensure the best quality of work and service to its customers.

“We believe getting our workers back at work is best for us,” he said. “We still have the banking technologies for our customers that want to use online banking services, but we want to continue to have those personal relationships with our customers in person too. Some people have lots of questions and prefer the in-person experience with their local banker. We have a long history and tradition of giving that kind of service to our customers. We are in the process of opening up all our branches and banking services within the next 30 days, unless something happens. This has been a very fluid situation and we have had to adapt quickly.”

Tim Quinlan, executive vice president of retail banking with City National Bank, said he believes community banks generally responded pretty well to the pandemic.

“At City, we were pleasantly surprised how quickly our operations team adapted to remote work to service our customers,” he said. “At our operations center, we had to adapt quickly to jobs that could be completed remotely at home or moved to other areas. Our team adapted to these changes at lightning speeds so we could continue to serve our customers.”

In late March last year, City responded to the pandemic by closing its branch lobbies to appointment only and temporarily closing its six in-store locations.

“We communicated with large groups of our managers daily to be sure we understood their concerns and share important information,” Quinlan said. “During this time, we found ways to service our customers based on their needs; in person, over the phone, via digital banking access and our drive-thru facilities. We adapted our delivery channels to meet our customer’s needs, including opening deposit accounts and closing loans in our drive-thrus.”

By mid-September last year, he said, the branch managers, who were comfortable with the bank’s COVID-19 protocols and recommended they open the lobbies to walk-in traffic and reopen the in-store offices.

“Our customers returned slowly at first, but now we are seeing some positive trends in lobby branch traffic,” he said. “More importantly, our customers and others in the community have noticed our diligent efforts to best serve our customers during these unprecedented times. In 2021, our approach during the pandemic is being rewarded with strong growth in new retail and business relationships and the retention of existing customers.”

Quinlan says having branch locations open is important to the bank’s large customer base.

“When our customers need service or assistance, they still call or visit their local City National Bank office,” he said.

He added that since vaccines have been available in City’s markets, bank officials have encouraged staff to participate.

“Once vaccines started to become more available in late January, we began to offer paid time off for our employees to get vaccinated,” Quinlan said. “This is something we felt was very important early in the process.”

Just this week, President Joe Biden made a similar recommendation to all employers.

“As we became more educated on how to register and obtain appointments, we communicated these tips to our employees,” Quinlan said. “Last week, we held a COVID-19 vaccine clinic at our Cross Lanes operations center. On an ongoing basis, we will encourage our employees to get vaccinated.”

He said in the next few months if things continue to trend in the right direction, City’s remaining operations staff working remotely will return to work at its offices.

“Today, I think both our employees and the company agree we are better when we can work more closely together,” he said.

Follow reporter Fred Pace at Facebook.com/FredPaceHD and via Twitter @FredPaceHD or email him at fpace@hdmediallc.com.

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