A Search For The New Normal Work Experience

An internal committee at Affinity Plus FCU attempts to answer an important question for employees returning to the office post-pandemic: What comes next?

 
 

Affinity Plus Federal Credit Union ($3.5B, Saint Paul, MN) plans to operate in a work-style similar to the pandemic mode through the rest of 2021. Its branches are open and staffed, and select back-office employees have fully or partially returned to its headquarters; however, most will remain at home through December.

“We made the call in February,” says Jennifer Klapak, the credit union’s director of training. “We didn’t know how the pandemic was going to progress, how vaccines would roll out, or how schools would reopen. We wanted to be sensitive to the needs of our 550 employees.”

During the pandemic’s early stages, the cooperative established a COVID-19 committee to monitor health and safety concerns as well as state and local guidance. The committee clearly communicates that information to staff and uses it to plan the credit union’s internal response to the pandemic.

But as the pandemic evolved, so, too, did the committee’s purpose. In 2021, its focus changed from ensuring employees could work safely and effectively despite the pandemic to considering what work would look like because of it.

Thus, the 15-person COVID-19 committee morphed into the Affinity Plus future work experience committee in early summer 20201. In this Q&A, Klapak discusses the committee’s purpose, logistics, what the future work experience might be at the credit union, and more.

Jennifer Klapak, Director of Training, Affinity Plus FCU

Why did Affinity Plus transition its COVID-19 committee to a future work experience committee?

Jennifer Klapak: When the pandemic started, everyone worked from home, regardless of role. We established the COVID-19 committee to consider how we would operate in that environment. As time went on, we slowly reopened parts of our business. We’ve been thoughtful and careful in our approach.

As we look ahead, we understand what we do affects all of our employees, not just small segments. The COVID-19 committee laid the foundation of our current work, which is to ensure we are open to the real possibility that how we work needs to change and evolve with what we’ve been through these past 15 months.

Who is on the committee?

JK: The 15 employees include leaders from our senior team, mid-level managers, and even employees without formal leadership duties. Together, they represent all of Affinity Plus, from our branch network to member relations, operations, cards, and more. We wanted to include all segments of the business in the process.

How did you choose the employees?

JK: Much of it was determined by how we envisioned the future work experience. As the committee’s governing charter states: “As workplaces are evolving in a post-pandemic world, we want to lead the organization to adapt and change, to support a more flexible work experience for employees when we can, while also achieving strong operational and financial results for the organization, positive experiences for our members, and an engaging workplace for employees.”

That’s the high-level goal. The people on the team were chosen based on questions we knew we had to ask of the organization. What technology do we need? Facilities? What security do we need? How do we make sure we don’t lose sight of our culture and values? What is our approach to human resources? Do policies need to change? How do we make sure we’re looking at both the high-level operational model and at the individual branch level? We picked people who represented all those areas. In some cases, that included leaders, but it also necessitated calling on non-management employees as well.

CU QUICK FACTS

Affinity Plus FCU
DATA AS OF 03.31.21

HQ:Saint Paul, MN
ASSETS: $3.5B
MEMBERS:221,705
BRANCHES: 28
12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 35.6%
12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 21.4%
ROA: 0.90%

How important is maintaining your current culture as you consider what comes next?

JK: The work of our future work experience committee is an extension of the vision we have for the organization, which is to create the best place our members have ever banked and our employees have ever worked.

From a culture standpoint, we continue to think about what that means. How do we maintain connections? How do we not lose sight of who we are and what makes us special? In-person contact is important, but it’s not the only way, and we’re challenging ourselves to identify the next evolution.

We can’t go back to what existed 15 months ago, it’s not there anymore. In that time, we’ve tried plenty of new things — including a fully online all-employee day — and we’ve demonstrated strong results. We want to make sure we’re taking with us the best we’ve gained while also thinking about opportunities to improve. For us, that also means to continue to work on diversity, inclusion, and belonging. How can we be more inclusive?

How did the group get up and running?

JK: The group’s work kicked off in early June, but we laid the foundation before that. We brought leaders together and talked about what we wanted to create. We established the timeline and asked them to fill out a future work experience plan, which we then submitted to human resources. That plan was designed to uncover answers to certain questions: What culture do they want to create for their team? How will they maintain and build strong relationships? What are their communication expectations? How are they going to engage and recognize employees who achieve outcomes?

Gathering that information helped us see where the organization was and how leaders were thinking about their teams. The responses helped us draft the committee’s charter, from which we built out the team.

I also facilitated a session with our senior team. I asked them to describe what they wanted to see in our future work experience — what vision, concerns, and other items they wanted us to pay attention to. I took that information into the first committee meeting, where we went through the charter, the purpose, and all the things we’d already decided. We had a conversation around what we were trying to create, what we should be paying attention to, and how we would know if we were getting off track from those goals.

How often does the future work experience committee meet? How do the meetings run?

JK: We’ve been meeting weekly ever since the initial kickoff. Of late, we’ve been defining priorities among the group. There’s a lot of areas we need to look into, but we decided we needed to focus on facilities and technology first. We anticipate continued remote work, and we need to make sure we have the right systems in place long term.

We’re working on sending out staff surveys to understand how they feel about certain aspects of the future work experience. For instance, how do they feel about vaccinations as it relates to their return to the office? We’re not requiring them to be vaccinated, but we want to take the pulse of our staff. What are their concerns? What are they looking for? What will keep them engaged?

It’s not just the 15 people in the committee who will design what happens next. We want our people to let us know how they feel, to arm us with the information, attitudes, and beliefs that will inspire what the future of work will be.

You want the whole organization to have a say in the future of work.

JK: We are in a spot where we can design things that have never existed before. I don’t know when else in my career I’ll have an opportunity to rethink how we work in a way that helps people be their best and do their best. That’s the opportunity we have here, and we’re open to that opportunity.

We’re also challenging our assumptions about what makes people effective at work by looking past them as employees and seeing them as people. There’s an authenticity created in building systems or processes for people, not employees. And we aspire to that.

“We are in a spot where we can design things that have never existed before. I don’t know when else in my career I’ll have an opportunity to rethink how we work in a way that helps people be their best and do their best.”

Jennifer Klapak, Director of Training, Affinity Plus FCU

What specific systems or processes are you looking into adopting?

JK: Systems are a big one. Our IT department is looking at internal collaboration tools. Facilities is also important. If we’re going to ask our people to hotel, which is a method of office management whereby workers dynamically schedule and share workspaces, we need software that will allow that. For employees with children, can we offer childcare? That’s an important consideration for us, and there are many small requirements that come with it.

We won’t be fully remote, but we’ll offer flexibility. Does that mean set days in the office? We’re not sure. Does that mean we’ll rewrite the work-life balance? We know everyone will have a different opinion on what that constitutes, but we’ll try.

We’re looking to hit the ground running in January, and we don’t want to be figuring this out. We feel some urgency in communicating the environment we’re going to ask our people to step back into.

Any on the member side?

JK: We adopted video banking. We also started a language line, so we can work with members whose first language is not English. We’ve thought about how our members use the ATM, our drive-thrus, and even whether they need to be in-person to close on a mortgage.

We’re thinking of ways we can innovate. We’re not throwing out everything that has been good or worked, but we are considering how what we offer meets members where they’re at. We’ve given ourselves permission to take the things we were good at and make them better.

What deadlines have you set for where you want to be before the big January deadline?

JK: By mid-August we want to have a clear message about childcare. That’s important for us.

We’re also waiting to see the results from our employee survey. Their answers will influence and possibly reprioritize our next several months of work.

In January, what will happen to the future work experience committee?

JK: If our past experience is any guide, I anticipate we’ll want to operate this committee at least three to six months past where we feel like we’ve implemented what we hoped to achieve. We’re not going to arrive at any perfect place, but we’ll continue to grow and evolve and try some things out. And then we’ll take all those wins and successes and carry them forward or adjust where need be.

What best practices can other credit unions take away from this committee?

JK: Success comes down to involving all voices and challenging assumptions. Even if we don’t have all the answers, we are willing to take a step forward. We don’t declare early victory; we continue to stay curious.

This interview has been edited and condensed.