Wait Wait, Don’t Quit

The Covid-19 infection rate across much of the country is in decline, but banks and other employers trying to bring workers back to the office are dealing with another problem: an acute labor shortage.

Last month acquired the nickname #striketober, as the U.S. reached a record high percentage of people quitting their jobs. The latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 4.7 million people, or 2.9% of all employees, quit their jobs in August. Nonfarm employment as of October was 4.2 million shy of what it was pre-pandemic. Wages are climbing, and banks feel the pressure from companies like Bank of America Corp., which announced that it will pay workers at least $25 an hour by 2025.

The ability to work-from-home in such an environment has suddenly become a retention tool — no longer simply a response to the pandemic. As I head to Bank Director’s Bank Compensation & Talent Conference at the Four Seasons Resort and Club in Dallas Nov. 8 to 10, where close to 200 people will discuss those and other issues, it’s clear that flexibility is becoming the new 401(k).

At $1.6 billion State Bank of Cross Plains, in a suburb of Madison, Wisconsin, allowing non-branch staff to work from home a few days per week has become an important benefit, said Chief Financial Officer Sue Loken at a recent Bank Director conference in Chicago.

In Buffalo, New York, at $152 billion M&T Bank Corp., employees will come back to the office three days a week starting in January 2022. Some already were coming into the office voluntarily or if their work required it.

Hybrid work looks like a better alternative to most banks than remote work. An unscientific audience poll at Bank Director’s recent Bank Audit and Risk Committees Conference in Chicago found that fewer than 5% of 57 respondents thought that more than half their employees would work remotely in the future. The most popular answer was that fewer than a quarter will work remotely, in line with Bank Director’s 2021 Risk Survey conducted at the beginning of the year.

That fits with what Paul Ward, chief risk officer at $15 billion Community Bank System in DeWitt, New York, had to say at the conference. Most employees are back at the office full-time, though a few still are working remotely.

Community Bank’s senior executives believe those in-person conversations are critical to building culture at the bank. Executives at M&T Bank also felt that culture is best cultivated in person, not via video conferencing. Michele Trolli, M&T’s head of corporate operations and enterprise initiatives, told The Buffalo News last October that M&T was “living off an annuity” acquired pre-pandemic by being together and knowing each other. “And that annuity, at some point, that runs out,” she said.