Making the Most of Idle Time in the Branch
"Idle time"—the periods during which branch staff is not performing member-facing transactions or other meaningful tasks—presents a major challenge for credit unions (CUs). An FMSI study has determined it is common for idle time to account for up to 30% of the time a credit union employee spends during paid working hours at the branch.
Idle time does not have to be non-productive time. Effective management, paired with employee training, accountability and scheduling of tasks within defined idle time, can help credit union staff put idle time to better use. In this article, we'll explore specific strategies to help structure idle time and then enact targeted plans to use it productively.
Idle Time: Bad Business for Good Employees
Idle time has become such a negative bottom line impact that, in many of the staff exit interviews from financial institutions used in FMSI's studies, departing employees cite boredom from idle time as one of their reasons for dissatisfaction. Credit unions try to fill idle time, but often do so ineffectively because it has previously been unpredictable and can be short-lived.
Employees may be afraid to walk away from their stations for fear that the credit union will suddenly get busy. Or, they may start inappropriate, complicated activities and end up overly focused on those when a member is waiting to be served. This loose approach tends to dilute member service and reduce the accuracy of whatever task the employee is performing at the time.
Financial Pain and Drain
The performance differential between credit unions that do and do not optimize idle time can vary drastically. One example is the $900 million, Kansas-based Meritrust Credit Union, which has transformed how it is handling staff idle time by scheduling an appropriate number of employees at all times, identifying lull periods in transaction activity, and then assigning specific sales, service and training tasks during these times.
For the project, Meritrust's management team decided to set a first-year goal of increasing the credit union’s productivity by 10%, an accomplishment it was able to achieve within seven months of program roll-out. Meritrust also reduced its teller labor cost per transaction (LCPT) from $1.09 to $0.96 in its first year, resulting in $156,000 in annualized labor cost savings. The CU's second-year goal is another double-digit productivity increase, with correlating reductions in LCPT.
Strategies That Work
Meritrust and other credit unions achieve control of idle time through several mechanisms, including employee education and training for both productivity and accountability, and proactive staff scheduling.
Meritrust's success with scheduling was facilitated by intelligence gathering that enabled the credit union to gain a firm grip on forecasting account holder traffic – including the predicted incidence of idle time – and then structure its schedules around those forecasts.
There isn’t enough room in this article to discuss the specifics of choosing (or developing) a technology solution to achieve precise scheduling through accurate forecasting. Fortunately, implementing a credit union-wide scheduling system is not an absolute prerequisite to achieving some improvement in idle time management.
Without a dedicated technology solution to assist in identifying idle time periods, you can rely on observation and the opinions of supervisors to identify periods where your staff tends to sit idle. For these periods, plan ahead to designate one or more employee to perform idle time tasks, then track the results – and how accurate your scheduling estimates were – to provide data for further program tweaking.
Next Page: Productive Time
Turning Idle Time into Productive Time
One of the keys to helping your staff achieve better use of idle time is to train them when to perform tasks and what tasks they should attempt, then hold them accountable for initiating these tasks during your identified "slow periods." Following are a few ideas to get you started.
- Have back office departments define short, special projects that could be handled in the branches during idle time. (i.e., every department has some kind of file scrubbing efforts to be done.)
- Develop a positive outbound calling program to account holders during idle time. The message needs to be one of value to the account holder.
- Create short cross-training programs and have staff work together on training during idle time.
- Instruct idle employees to assist the lending department with paperwork for filing titles, recording documents with appropriate agencies, etc.
- Ask staff for suggestions on how to better utilize unscheduled, identified idle time, and you will receive many suggestions. No one wants to sit idle and be bored.
Achieving Optimal Results
Surveys show that members will wait for assistance as long as five minutes, on average, before they become dissatisfied. Yet, many credit unions over-schedule, because they are afraid to let a member wait for even a minute.
To make the most of your program, take advantage of member wait time expectations. Schedule as precisely as you can and establish specific timeframes for "idle time" work. Then, instruct the excess staff to leave their stations during these work periods and not re-engage account holders unless management instructs them to do so.
If you are still struggling with inefficient use of idle time after initiating your program, consider investigating staff scheduling technologies, which typically include daily idle time measurements per individual staff and branches. Several companies offer these types of solutions, and they have documented benefit in achieving better branch productivity – including idle time reduction.
As technologies such as online and mobile banking continue to push transactions out of the branch, staff idle time will only grow for credit unions that do not proactively address it. Having branch management keep a close watch on its staff's use of idle time and implement proper scheduling tools, training and awareness programs will enable them to put excess labor capacity to work. The results will surprise you.