Rain, sleet, snow – and even waterline breaks – don’t stop Northern Credit Union.
Thanks to tech tools like social media and electronic signatures and staff who can work remotely, Northern is ready, willing and able to serve members even when winter weather shuts the branches, said Alexa Bennett, marketing manager at the $192 million cooperative in Watertown, N.Y.
Just a few days before the first major snowstorm of 2014 swept across the country, Northern was forced to close its Adam, N.Y., branch after subzero temperatures caused a water pipe to break in an adjoining store.
“We had four to six inches of water flowing out of our walls on Friday and then we got more than a foot of snow on Tuesday,” Bennett recalled.
During the past month, a series of winter storms forced many credit unions to close, testing their preparations.
Having an action plan, remote staffing capabilities and state-of-the-art technology are key to providing a continuum of quality service during emergency closings, said Mindi Schwab, communications director for the Credit Union Association of New York.
When credit unions are not open during regular hours, usage increases for online banking and call centers, which can be quickly overburdened, she said.
Northern CU was ready when catastrophe struck, Bennett said.
The credit union had to close its seven branches at 2 p.m. on Jan. 7 and all day on Jan. 8 due to snow. In addition, the flooded branch remained closed for a week.
Fortunately, a plan of action was in place, she said.
During the water leak, employees were relocated to other branches and members were notified.
“We provided members with locations for closest branches and ATMs,” Bennett explained. “We also rescheduled loan closings to other branches and if possible, used DocuSign to have documents signed electronically for loan closings. Also, we had funds deposited in member accounts via our accounting and loan processing teams.”
During one of the storms, back office employees with laptops and VPN capabilities were able to work from home, she added.
Credit unions should take precautionary steps to ensure network security for telecommuters, but there are numerous advantages to allowing employees to work remotely at times, Bennett said.
Communication between remote staff and members must be protected, and updates should be shared on a regular basis.
“During the snow storm we urged members to use all of the self-service capabilities, including online banking, mobile banking, 24/7 chat on our website, online account and loan applications,” Bennett added. “If they had to make a deposit, we asked them to use the drive-up ATMs, but we reminded them that they really shouldn’t be out on the roads.”
The dual catastrophe pointed out the importance of emergency preparation and teamwork during a crisis, she said.
“We managed to weather a water main break and two days closure for the polar vortex, all while being able to assist our members remotely with our 24/7 call center, online chat, online apps, mobile banking, full-service ATMs and electronic document signing for loan closings,” she added.
Having the appropriate technology in place and reliable staff who can work remotely is essential, said Patricia Warden-Conty, marketing communications manager at the $1 billion Hanscom FCU, headquartered at Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts.
“Our weather closings are often determined by the commander of the military bases and the federal buildings where most of our branches and our headquarters are located,” she said. “When they close, we have no choice but to close those branches. So, we have to always be ready.”
During one of the most severe storms, the credit union used Facebook, email and other methods to update its 50,000 members.
“People liked that they could connect with us and get a response right away, throughout the storm,” Warden-Conty said.
Hanscom has numerous full-time telecommuters who work in remote delivery areas, such as the website and phone system, and some who routinely work from home one or two days per week, she said.
To ensure that employees understand what is expected of them when working remotely, Hanscom has a policy covering telecommuting in its employee handbook.
“By allowing telecommuting, we have been able to retain some excellent employees who relocated to other parts of the country,” Warden-Conty said. “I think it helps us manage snow days better, too. Since a number of key staff are set up with home offices and have established routines, we are very confident that they work efficiently.”
Although the credit union’s call center employees are not set up to work from home, Hanscom has off site call center coverage when its center is closed.
“Again, because they are already in place, it’s seamless for our members,” Warden-Conty added.