How Innovative Banks Train Employees in a Pandemic

Until recently, PlainsCapital Bank conducted training like many other banks — in person. 

The $13.8 billion asset institution has branches that stretch from north Texas to Houston, and down to the Rio Grande. The 1,000-mile area is served by just three in-person training facilities; it required immense logistics and expense to get employees there. So when PlainsCapital banking services training manager Jennifer Williams was introduced to microlearning, the concept just clicked.

Microlearning is exactly what it sounds like: short, frequent learning sessions lasting a few minutes each, which are often completed digitally. 

Learning in bite-sized chunks aligns with the speed of modern life. Williams notes “[t]oday’s world is so fast paced. Twitter is 280 characters, TikTok is short videos.” Most people are conditioned to pay attention in short bursts. This is true in learning environments too. Microlearning has been shown to produce a 25% lift in knowledge retention rates compared to traditional, long-form methods like in-person instruction, according to John Findlay, founder and CEO of game-based learning platform LemonadeLXP.

PlainsCapital, a unit of Hilltop Holdings, embraced the concept of microlearning when it launched LemonadeLXP for employee training earlier this spring. The timing was fortuitous; the rollout occurred just as Texas announced a shelter-in-place order that put the kibosh on in-person instruction as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

LemonadeXLP educates bank staff with interactive, microlearning modules and role-play scenarios. The platform provides product simulations that help both employees and customers learn how to use digital banking tools. And learning materials can be repurposed as branded, searchable content for the bank’s website, app or call center reps.

But it’s not what LemonadeLXP does that makes it attractive to banks like PlainsCapital. The magic is in how the company approaches learning: by making it a game.

The dynamic, game-based nature of Lemonade stands in stark contrast to the static experiences provided by traditional learning management systems — even the ones that have been “gamified” by awarding users with accolades. The team at LemonadeLXP is emphatic about the difference between being game-based and gamified. Around the office, they refer to “gamification” as “lame-ification.”

“It’s a lazy approach to try to spice up learning,” says Findlay. “[Gamification] doesn’t change the learning experience. All it does is tack game elements onto it — give you a badge or points for completing the same old crappy learning experience.” 

While these small rewards may have appeal at first, that tends to wane quickly. “Some people might read a couple extra PDFs the first time, but when they see that that badge has no context, no relevance, it quickly loses its enticement factors,” he says. 

That’s why, instead of rewarding task completion with badges, Lemonade rewards actual knowledge with real game scores. 

Scores have power because they challenge the user to learn from their past mistakes. Scores compel people to revisit — and thus retain — information to beat their own record. That pursuit is what makes game-based learning so compelling. 

Scores also help PlainsCapital manage training more effectively. “Before, when we were in-person training, [employees] would leave and we had no real clue, no concrete evidence, of what they retained and what they didn’t,” says Williams. “Now we can see exactly by their scores where our knowledge gaps are.”

The new learning experience makes training less burdensome for employees, without sacrificing efficacy. In the past, employees sequestered at training facilities would feverishly respond to emails at every break in an attempt to stay caught up while out of the office, Williams says. Now, employees train for 5 minutes a day and are retaining more knowledge than ever. PlainsCapital has increased its learning average from 63% to 93% in the first half of this year.

There’s also a financial case to be made for microlearning. In long-form learning models, employees spend about 47 hours a year in training at an average cost of about $654 per employee, according to Findlay. Microlearning cuts training time down to 22 hours — supposing employees engage for just 5 minutes out of each day — resulting in $300 in savings per employee annually. 

Today, PlainsCapital Bank engages employees with Lemonade via prize sweepstakes, scavenger hunts and certificates. They’re exploring a “brag board” idea and launching brand new games every week, regardless of whether they have a new product or service to promote. Next, Williams will focus on expanding the use of LemonadeLXP to reduce call center times.

“Lemonade was a game-changer for us,” she says.

The Quiet Crisis You May Be Overlooking

“In the Covid-19 Economy, You Can Have a Kid or a Job,” reads a recent headline in The New York Times. “You Can’t Have Both.”

As leadership teams consider how they’ll return to some version of “business as usual” when the pandemic abates, there’s one factor they may be overlooking: When daycares and schools close, working parents without effective support systems are forced to prioritize between their children and their career.

“The pandemic has made a bad situation worse,” says Simon Workman, director of early childhood policy at the Center for American Progress.

The supply of high-quality child care couldn’t keep up with demand before the pandemic, and it’s expensive, accounting for 20% to 30% of a family’s monthly income, he says. Providers that are already financially strapped are now earning even less, due to safety and health guidelines that can be costly to comply with. Some providers won’t endure the economic fallout from Covid-19.

Amid the myriad worries facing companies today, child care may seem minor. But it’s a huge stressor for employees, impacting their ability to work. Inadequate child care resources cost working parents and the companies that employ them tens of billions of dollars annually, according to a Care.com study, with parents losing $37 billion in wages and companies experiencing $13 billion in lost productivity. And the problem is larger than those numbers suggest: Care.com’s research only accounts for parents of children under the age of three.

Child care benefits could be an effective tool in a company’s arsenal when it comes to attracting and retaining talent. Roughly half of bank employees are 45 or younger, according to Bank Director’s 2020 Compensation Survey, meaning that many are focused on building families as well as their careers. Yet only 12% of banks offer child care benefits, according to our survey.

Sterling National Bank, a subsidiary of Sterling Bancorp, chose to subsidize backup child care for its employees following conversations between CEO Jack Kopnisky, Chief Human Resources Officer Javier Evans and Margaret Wortley, director of benefits, HR operations and compliance, exploring how Sterling could better compete for talent in New York City.  

“Jack talked to Margaret and [me] and said, ‘I want us to offer contemporary, forward-looking benefits to keep us right there at the leading edge,’” Evans says. The $30 billion bank based in Montebello, New York, competes for customers and talent with the likes of JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Citigroup.

“[They’re] all here in our backyard,” Evans continues. “So, we’ve got to make sure that we stay at least contemporary, from a benefit offering, so we can be competitive from that point of view.”

One provider the bank chose was Helpr, a startup offering a range of services for employees, including backup care, online classes and tutoring for kids, as well as consulting and concierge services.

Sterling initially subsidized 16 hours of backup child care annually, intending to offer employees a chance to take a date night, for example. This grew to 80 hours due to the pandemic. Up to that limit, an employee pays no more than $6 per hour with the bank covering the rest.

For employees seeking long-term care, Sterling also subsidizes the cost to recruit and screen candidates. Employees pay a one-time $500 fee; a similar service would cost $2,500, says Wortley.

“We’re hearing back from companies that primary care is the biggest stressor for their employees right now,” says Sarah Bystrom, a business development executive at Helpr. “That’s causing this anxiety and stress around how to continue to balance family and work life.”

In addition to Helpr, Sterling works with Bright Horizons, another care provider.

In response to the pandemic, the bank increased hourly pay for front-line staff and awarded a $750 bonus to non-executive employees, according to Evans. They also received extra paid time off, which many used to care for children, and Sterling has worked with employees to create more flexible schedules. Virtual education goes beyond banking to cover topics like working at home with children.

Sterling also provided access to Headspace, an app focused on mindfulness and mental health. “We knew right at the beginning of the pandemic that this would take a mental toll on folks,” Evans says.

Working parents need support in these unique times; they’ll also need it after this crisis is in the rearview mirror. According to Workman, about 2 million families experience a job disruption — missed work or even quitting — due to child care challenges.

“That’s bad for the family, but it’s also bad for the employer,” he says. “As a society, as an economy, we all benefit when families have access to high-quality, early childhood education they can afford and access on a reliable schedule.”

Pandemic Poses Path to Boost Employee Engagement

The coronavirus crisis has temporarily boosted employee engagement, giving companies and managers a chance to implement changes that could make those increases permanent.

Employee engagement has increased since the start of the pandemic, according to the analytics and advisory firm Gallup, even as negative emotions also have risen. One potential reason could be stronger and more-empathetic connections between managers and employees. Companies have an opportunity to continue making changes that could result in long-term employee engagement increases, such as shifting managers from bosses to coaches.

Stay-at-home orders caused many banks to move to remote work environments for their employees, which altered the way managers relate with and oversee their reports, says Andrew Robertson, a managing consultant in retail banking and financial services at Gallup. Those shifts occurred as the firm began to see lower reported levels of well-being and higher levels of emotions like stress and anxiety in its surveys.

Work has really shifted, so the dynamic of … command-and-control literally can’t work right now,” Robertson says. “A boss would be over-the-shoulder task managing or micromanaging. Employees are acutely aware that is no longer applicable.”

The firm has also seen an increase in the percentage of employees who wish to continue working from home in some capacity, as well as an openness from managers and executives to allow that. But adding a work-from-home arrangement can complicate management once employees go off-site. In response, some managers seem to be electing a more empathetic, personal and coach-like approach when it comes to connecting and managing remote workers.

Managers are key to a team’s success, especially in moments of pressure and crisis. Their ability to connect and lead their reports has huge implications for banks seeking top performance. But they can also be a major liability when it comes to preserving, enriching and engaging a bank’s workforce.

Gallup’s research indicates that 70% of a team’s engagement can be attributed to their manager. Bad managers are costly: The firm found that one out of every two people leave a job as a direct response to a manager.

“If you want to boil employee engagement down, it’s essentially the manager,” says Paul Berg, financial services thought leader at Gallup. “Most people are having a mediocre-to-poor experience with their manager.”

But Gallup has found that employee engagement has moved higher during the pandemic, from 34% to 38% — its highest level since it began tracking in 2000. That’s a critical opportunity for banks. Higher employee engagement can translate into higher customer advocacy, productivity and profitability, and lower turnover, absenteeism, safety and theft.

Some of the reasons behind the move include that companies quickly rolled out definitive and detailed plans that kept employees informed of how their jobs would need to change. Managers were empowered to support employees as they moved to remote work, and employees may be especially grateful to have a job right now.

But another reason may be that employees and their managers may be having more meaningful and more frequent conversations — a dynamic that can drive engagement. Managers are figuring out ways to keep their teams connected to their work and to each other, acknowledging their colleagues’ stress and trying to keep morale high.

This creates a natural opening for banks to continue cultivating this increased engagement by training managers to become coaches and not bosses. But not just any type of coach.

Berg says companies that adopt a coaching mentality for managers tend to focus on specific objectives, which winds up being “completely ineffective.” The secret to good coaching is focusing on an employee’s strengths. Just as the best coaches help their players identify and leverage their strengths as part of a team, the best managers “focus on what’s right with a person,” Berg says.

Shifting to a coach mindset may come more naturally for some managers right now, given that remote work has changed the types of conversations they have with employees. Robertson says effective managers during the pandemic are the ones who get to know their employees and their situations in order to help them accomplish what they need to, and can have more-meaningful conversation about their work as a result. He believes the role of managers as a glue connecting workers to their banks has become more, not less, important during the pandemic.

“There have been moments [during the pandemic] where we’ve really understood that these human connections are important at work, and that we’re actually able to accomplish so much together when we make those thoughtful human connections,” he says.

How One Bank Puts Agile Management Techniques Into Action

When David Mansfield took the reins as CEO of Provident Bancorp six years ago, he could see that a change was needed, and that required new thinking.

“We were a typical community bank trying to be everything to everybody,” says Mansfield. He transformed the $1.1 billion bank based in Amesbury, Massachusetts, into a “true commercial bank” to the small and mid-sized companies that form the “backbone” of the community.

We’re trying to offer products and services that are not commodities, where we can differentiate ourselves, add value and get paid for it,” says Mansfield. “The customer’s appreciative, because they’re getting a product or service that really isn’t available to [small and mid-sized companies]” — like specialty services usually offered by large regional and money-center banks to their corporate clients.

To accomplish that, he needed employees who weren’t afraid to shake things up. He also needed to develop a culture and tools that facilitated collaboration within the organization. To do this, he borrowed managerial techniques from the technology sector by adopting Lean and Agile techniques.

Teams within the bank using these methods identify how to improve processes and workflows. “We have had some really amazing success stories,” says Mansfield.

Lean management aims for continual, incremental improvement. Quick “daily huddles” in the bank help staff focus on the day. In these 15-minute standup meetings, employees provide a quick update about progress on key projects and share any obstacles they’re facing so these issues can be addressed.

Mansfield credits Lean methods for improving interdepartmental dynamics. “One of the major premises of Lean [is that] it’s all about the customer experience, and we truly believe within this organization that everybody has a customer,” he says. Loan officers and branch staff directly interact with the customer, but support staff have a customer, too: their colleagues serving the customer. “What I love about our IT group is, they believe that wouldn’t happen unless they serve their customer, which is that group of people.”

Provident Bancorp still incorporates Lean thinking, but started shifting to Agile techniques late last year, upon hiring Joy Curth as senior information officer. Curth’s experience includes a stint in application development at Intuit, and she understands Agile methods. The principles of Lean and Agile are similar; both seek to create workflow efficiencies and promote iterative development.

Curth doesn’t have a banking background, which appealed to Mansfield. “We’re trying to do some different things, really leverage technology, and the traditional bank chief information officer just is not what I was looking for,” he says. As the bank weighs partnerships with technology companies, “she’s not only able to speak their language, but she’s able to recruit people to join her team [and] really professionalized our project management team” due to her Agile background.

Adoption of Agile has been project based, and the bank’s first project under the methodology was integrating ResX Warehouse Lending, a warehousing lending division that it acquired in January from $58.6 billion People’s United Financial, based in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

“Dave came to us and announced we were going to do an acquisition, and we were able to complete that project in [roughly] 8 weeks,” says Curth. “A whole acquisition of staff, technology, contracts — that was pretty expedited and showed that we were able to do that without a hitch.” The project’s success encouraged bank leaders to roll out the approach for most key projects.

“Even the bank we were doing the acquisition from [was] really impressed with our team,” says Mansfield. “We really drove it; it was an everyday meeting, what’s the status, how to keep things going.”

Agile is an ongoing journey that Mansfield believes represents the “next evolution” for project management at Provident. He’s a big reader, and one of his favorites is “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t,” by Jim Collins.

“There’s a concept he uses: Shoot bullets first,” says Mansfield. Shooting bullets means pursuing attempts that represent a low risk and require minimal resources. If it works, you recalibrate and then “shoot the cannonball when you’re ready,” he says — using your company’s resources to make a big move based on those earlier, iterative attempts.

Another one that he calls a “gut check” on Lean techniques is “Jumpstart Your Service Revolution: Transform Your Company’s DNA and Thrive in an Age of Disruption,” by Thomas Schlick.

By adopting Lean and Agile techniques, Mansfield is creating a bank that differentiates itself in the market. Curth adds that employees enjoy working there. It’s what drew her to the bank. “When you implement this type of culture, your morale is high, and there really is an energy that is compelling and exciting,” says Curth.

Recommended Reading from David Mansfield, Provident Bancorp

The Value of Company Intranets


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The popularity of digital channels is placing increased pressure on bank branches to maximize every opportunity to acquire, engage and retain customers. Branches are evolving away from segmented teller lines and personal bankers to single points of contact that can facilitate any customer request. Key to this evolution is the presence of an intranet, which can be thought of as a centralized workflow that provides quick access to information, something that does not exist in most branches today.

By leveraging an employee intranet to create universal bankers, banks can successfully transition from a passive environment to one that drives engagement, reinforces the brand and establishes a new standard in service.

“A centralized system makes the process smoother, as the employees can locate the information they need and provide it quickly to the customers,” says Judy Price, vice president and senior operations and compliance officer at Carolina Alliance Bank. “When customers come into the bank, we want to quickly address their needs and make the experience enjoyable. A bank’s ability to continue growing is a direct byproduct of its ability to prioritize serving and engaging customers.” Combining the roles of a traditional teller and personal banker means that the employee is knowledgeable enough to serve anywhere in the branch instead of being confined to a single location. This role removes silos and functions across multiple tasks, such as facilitating transactions, opening new accounts, completing loan applications and managing the essential business of general customer service.

Intranets have other benefits as well. A single repository of information is essential to educating employees on cross-departmental responsibilities. For management, an intranet system can generate reports weekly, monthly or as needed to track employees that have completed training and also communicate if someone has failed to satisfy any requirements. Depending on the size of your financial institution, the degrees of universal function likely vary. A universal banker must be able to provide information, forms, policy and procedures on any product that the bank offers. To do so, access to a system-wide exchange of information must be available, providing insights into customer requests and ensuring that each one has been directed to the most appropriate person, tracked and completed in the timeliest manner possible.

An intranet is an extremely effective channel for communicating internal news, brochures and documents and posting announcements. This information can include content that is generated by others in the organization as well. Sue Besselievre, vice president of Kitsap Bank, says “Our site is so engaging now that our top executives are regularly producing company-wide blogs and fresh content for our employees.” An employee can access any system needed and stay up to speed on important information, while also maintaining a channel of communication with management. Consider a financial institution that is spread across multiple states with many locations; the ability to eliminate the duplication and data redundancy ensures that everyone is seeing the same information, sparing any confusion and subsequent time spent trying to remedy the situation.

No bank or credit union will be successful without demonstrating its respective prioritization to serve customers or members. Intranets are not new, but it is a proven technology and making an investment in this capability ensures that a financial institution presents its brand accurately, while managing every channel and making sure customers can interact at their preferred point of contact with ease.