CEOs Weigh Challenge of Recalling Workers During Pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic is a crisis at both the personal and corporate level.

Having sent most of their employees to work from home since March, banks are now making plans to gradually re-integrate them into their old work environment. Doing so while infection rates are still high – and in some locations, still rising – is a human resource challenge unlike any faced in the modern corporate era.

Can banks bring their employees back to the workplace and keep them safe – and are they ready to come back?

I’ve had this conversation with a number of bank CEOs and senior executives in recent months; they all treat office worker repatriation as a serious issue that demands a thoughtful and careful approach. To a person, they express reluctance to force employees to return to an office environment if they fear there is a greater chance of being infected there than in their own homes.

And since all of their banks have operated with a distributed work force for three months or more with little — if any — decline in productivity, there’s no sense of urgency to immediately pull everyone back to the office.

Large banks that operate from office towers in big cities may face the biggest logistical challenges in bringing people back.

In an interview for my story in the third-quarter issue of Bank Director magazine – “Surviving the Pandemic” – Bill Demchak, chairman and CEO at Pittsburgh-based PNC Financial Services Group, gave voice to the cautiousness that many bank leaders feel.

Demchak says his executive team has discussed the timing of when PNC might reopen its 33-story office tower in downtown Pittsburgh. “Should we start bringing people back sometime in June, given that the government says it’s okay?” he asks. “We ultimately decided not to.”

Demchak lists some of the many considerations. The bank would have to partition off sections of the floor space in Plexiglas to maintain social distancing. The software running the elevators would have to be reprogramed to control the flow of people to upper floors, and the small number of people who would be allowed in each car would have to stand facing the interior walls to protect themselves. Seventy percent of PNC employees in the tower also commute on mass transit, which would increase their risk of infection. And since most summer camps in the Pittsburgh area have been cancelled because of the coronavirus, pulling people back into the office would create an immediate child care issue for many.

There are advantages to having your people in the same place. “You get knowledge transfer; people learn new skills and you maintain the culture of behavior and norms that we want to promote as a firm,” Demchak says. “I don’t know that you get any of that by bringing 30% of the senior people back and ticking them off by surrounding them with Plexiglas and making them ride the elevators backwards.”

Fifth Third Bancorp in Cincinnati has already begun to repatriate some of its employees to their old office locations. About half of the bank’s 22,000 workers remained onsite, either in the branches or operations centers, during the pandemic.

The plan is to bring back the remaining 11,000 in three phases, according to Chairman and CEO Greg Carmichael, beginning with an initial 1,000 in phase one who are onsite now, working in social distancing arrangements. “We want to learn, make sure that’s going to go as well as we would expect it to,” he says. “There’s signage that’s required, how many people in an elevator, how many people in a bathroom, food service, all those types of things.” The remaining 10,000 will be brought back in the next two phases. Fifth Third is following recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for Covid-19 workplace health and safety, and going beyond them in some instances.

The bank also had to stock up on large quantities of personal protective equipment, and anyone who has tried to purchase facemasks and hand sanitizers knows they are hard to come by even in small numbers. “We’ve got the hand sanitizers. We’re doing the wipe downs of the workstations, and we’ve got face coverings for all 11,000 employees,” Carmichael says.

The bank has also established an employee hotline to report violations of the new safety rules. “If someone sees a situation they’re not comfortable with, we have a hotline they can call immediately and we’ll address it immediately,” Carmichael says. “We want our employees to know that their safety is job one for us, and making sure we’re protecting them the best we can.”

It’s likely that not every employee will want to return to their old office. “The people that I talk to are really in fairly diametrically opposed camps right now,” says Darren King, the chief financial officer at M&T Bank Corp. in Buffalo, New York. “There’s the crowd that says, ‘I love working from home. I never want to go back to the office.’ And there’s an equally passionate crowd that says ‘As soon as the office is open, let me in. I want out of my house.’”

The trick will be offering flexibility to those employees who prefer to remain home-based, while keeping the office crowd safe. Like most banks, the majority of M&T’s staff have been working remotely through the pandemic; because productivity hasn’t suffered, it may be a matter of choice for some.

“We would not force anyone who’s uncomfortable and able to work from home to come back,” King says.