3 Ways To Bridge The Front And Back Office Divide

Fostering communication across departments requires transparency, teamwork, and small groups of volunteers.

If your front and back offices are not the epitome of teamwork, you’re not alone. Different job duties, poor communication, and employees scattered among various locations often create barriers between departments. The good news, though, is that credit unions can foster cooperation, especially along that contentious front and back office divide.

The three credit unions profiled here each adopted different strategies to build camaraderie and improve communication. One credit union cross-trains employees to encourage transparency, and another pairs staff members from warring departments to resolve disputes. A third encourages employee cooperation with informal activities and time spent in another department. In essence, all three credit unions have improved communication by opening a dialogue.

Transparency From The Top Down

At America’s First ($1.33B, Birmingham, AL), department heads meet every month, devoting about an hour to professional development training. That hour is spent covering topics like how to evaluate employees, give or receive feedback effectively, coach staff members, and even develop better business writing skills. The strategy is simple: If managers set a good example, everyone else will follow.

We focus a lot on communication and transparency at the manager level, and that bleeds into all of the departments as well, says Audra Weber, vice president of human resources at America’s First.

Plus, those managers take the skills they learn in each training session and share them with their own staff members so that the entire organization benefits. But America’s First doesn’t stop with that top down approach. The credit union also offers something similar for other employees.

For instance, America’s First brings together its most senior tellers from every branch four times a year so that they can develop better coaching skills and build camaraderie.

We encourage inter-departmental relationship building and communication every chance we get, Weber says.

Although the credit union doesn’t have an official cross-training program, it does encourage employees and managers to develop relationships outside of their departments in other ways, including three separate professional development programs for employees at other levels.

The cooperative’s rigorous nine-month training program for branch managers especially instills awareness of what the back office does and why. Those trainees even shadow personnel from other departments to get a holistic view of the cooperative’s operations.

So far, employee feedback has been positive, but although the credit union has made strides, Weber is realistic about eliminating the divide between the front and back office. That, she says, is utopia.

You’re never going to get there, but I’d like to get as close to that as I can, Weber says.

An All-Team Approach

For the past five years, Suncoast Credit Union ($5.77B, Tampa, FL) has smoothed over tensions between departments in an unusual way. Whenever there is a problem between the front and back office, the credit union pairs employees from either side of the divide to work together and find a solution.

If there is a problem or inefficiency that is impacting members, we might pair up employees from, say, a branch and loan processing to work through it, says Gary Vien, Suncoast’s chief administrative officer.

This all-team approach not only builds relationships across departments but also ensures that any important changes to processes include input from as much of the organization as possible.

A good example of this is our Hispanic outreach counsel, Vien says. We included branch representatives, community relations, and others who might play a role so we could understand the initiative from all perspectives.

Suncoast’s chief operating officer Susan Johnson introduced the all-team concept as a communication tool, particularly for sharing information from the semi-annual planning meetings that each department holds. A department with an upcoming meeting marketing, for example invites representatives from other departments, including a branch manager, to participate in that planning session.

We were not communicating effectively between our departments and needed to pump up cross-departmental communications for the benefit of our members, Vien says.

This ongoing communication allows the front and back office to grow closer as a team and benefit from one other’s perspective. In addition, Suncoast also lets employees interested in other departments work there, shadowing another employee for a period of time.

By encouraging departments to share information freely, Suncoast improved efficiency. In one instance, that transparency led branch and lending employees to discover that they were both collecting some of the same information from members. As a result, the credit union eliminated the duplicate efforts to minimize imposing on members and streamline the lending process.

You have to walk in each other’s shoes and communicate effectively so that when information is collected, it is passed seamlessly throughout the organization to the people who need it. And you don’t ever have to ask a member to provide it twice, Vien says.

Voluntary Programs

Informal meetings that promote collaboration can be just as effective as formal meetings that do the same thing. That’s what SC Telco Federal Credit Union ($266M, Greenville, SC) discovered when front and back office employees voluntarily participated in a business-oriented book study group.

The book group gives staff members a chance to build relationships informally and get to know people in other areas so they feel more comfortable reaching out if there is an issue down the road, says Patti Seymour, SC Telco’s vice president and chief administrative officer.

The book study group has been fostering communication since it began holding the monthly, hour-long meetings 18 months ago. Because the meetings are held during business hours, volunteers need a manager’s approve to participate, but the sessions encourage employees to reflect on the reading material and discuss it among the group. In this way, SC Telco encourages best practices without actually dictating what those practices should be.

It probably helps that the books the group has been reading are about building better organizations. While QBQ! The Question Behind the Question by John G. Miller encourages practicing personal accountability in the workplace, Good to Great by Jim Collins examines why some companies succeed when others fail.

The book group isn’t the only voluntary program that helps foster cooperation. KEYS (Knowledge Equips You to Serve) lets employees visit other departments to learn more about what they do. The credit union’s training department oversees the program and processes requests from employees, who must say why they are interested in a particular department and have their supervisor’s approval. After spending several hours in another department, the KEYS participants submit a written summary of what they learned and how they benefited from the experience.

Already, Seymour credits the program with identifying areas for improvement and reducing tensions between front and back office staff.

We’ve had situations where some of the front office processes have not caught up with back office advances, and the KEYS program shines a light on that so we can clean things up, she says.

The program even provides opportunities for career growth.

We had a branch employee who was interested in collections, Seymour recalls. After going through the KEYS program and learning more about the department’s function and duties, she applied for an opening in that area and has been successful in her new role.

June 23, 2014

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