Unitus Spreads Out, Employees Get Comfortable

The Oregon cooperative is creating a network of nerve centers to empower collaboration, create efficiencies, and reduce commutes.

Unitus Community Credit Union ($1.7B, Portland, OR) is midway through the process of creating a staffing model that allows employees to choose in-office, remote, or hybrid work at multiple locations. The Distributed Administrative Network — or DAN — will reduce commute times for employees while increasing efficiencies for the organization. What’s more, DAN also allows employees to collaborate and connect.

The 107,000-member cooperative already has purchased an office building in suburban Tigard, approximately 10 miles southwest of downtown Portland, as well as land on which to build a branch and administrative center in Woodburn, approximately 30 miles south. Unitus Community expects both locations to be operational in 2024.

Meanwhile, some staff already are working under the DAN model in the credit union’s Vancouver, WA, branch. That’s about 10 miles north of its current headquarters in downtown Portland, which the credit union will vacate as part of the new network plans.

With a network of administrative centers, employees will be free to work in the facility that best meets their needs.

Steven Stapp, President and CEO, Unitus Community Credit Union

A Network Of Centers For Different Needs

Steven Stapp, President & CEO, Unitus Community Credit Union

“The name ‘Distributed Administrative Network’ truly describes our new facilities structure,” says Steven Stapp, president and CEO of the 333-employee, 11-branch credit union since 2016.

Branch staff will continue to work on-site, but operational and administrative staff largely will be able to choose on-site, remote, or hybrid work. Employees who do move around will not get a permanent workspace but can reserve a space at any of the centers, Stapp says.

“With a network of administrative centers, employees will be free to work in the facility that best meets their needs,” Stapp says. “Whether an employee wants to work at the center closest to their home or chooses a facility that has a unique collaboration space, this network gives Unitus staff the flexibility to choose where and how they work best.”

It’s a model that recognizes — and celebrates — the differing needs of workers.

First Came Planning, Then Came The Pandemic

Stapp says the leadership team began working with its board, consultants, managers, and other employees in 2019. The credit union surveyed employees in January 2020 to determine how well facilities were serving their needs.

Stapp says the survey identified the following areas ripe for improvement and action:

  • Environmental sustainability.
  • Diversity, equity, and inclusion.
  • Innovation, inclusiveness, and inspiring service.
  • Flexibility
  • Technology
  • Employee engagement and wellbeing.

Then COVID-19 struck.

“The pandemic accelerated our planning,” Stapp says. “Branch staff worked in person throughout the entire pandemic, ensuring members had access to products and services. The rest of our workforce shifted to remote work, leveraging technology to stay connected. Recognizing how successful our teams were helped us determine that full-time, on-site work isn’t necessary to continue operations.”

That challenging time also changed leaders’ thinking about space.

“Our requirements significantly changed,” Stapp says. “We assessed feedback from employees on what they needed in a post-pandemic environment. Common themes were flexibility and opportunities for in-person collaboration. This feedback aligned well with our plans for distributing our facilities to give our workforce the flexibility to do their best work.”

Thus, the new centers will have more collaborative spaces for departments, creative teams, meetings, and member education. And that’s not all they’ll provide.

Multiple Bottom Lines

The distributed network satisfies many of the areas the credit union identified as ripe for improvement. At the top of that list is employee wellbeing.

“Another important lesson learned from the pandemic: distributing employees across multiple locations is a mitigation strategy to keep illness from spreading in the workplace,” Stapp says.

Reduced commutes and environmentally friendly operational systems in the building will contribute to sustainability, as will such features as rooftop gardens and solar panels at the Woodburn site and the 11 acres of wetlands that are being preserved at the Tigard location.

There are more direct benefits to the credit union’s financial bottom line, too.

“We can create long-term value by owning and operating our own facilities, lowering our overall operational costs,” Stapp says.

The credit union also plans to generate income by leasing out space in its the buildings.

Unitus is investing approximately $25 million in the 89,600-square-foot Tigard facility, with plans to use 30,000 square feet on one floor and lease the rest. In Woodburn, it is investing $9 million in the 16,500-square-foot facility. Plans for that location are under review by city officials, but the credit union aims to have a branch and community room on the first floor; flexible administrative offices, conference rooms, and collaboration space on the second floor; and leased space on the third floor.

 

An artist’s rendering of Unitus’s new branch and administrative center, expected to open in spring 2024.

“Owning these buildings creates long-term value for our membership,” Stapp says, adding that Unitus Community also will consider membership growth, employee retention, and passive revenue when measuring ROI and future plans for the DAN model.

“We’ll evaluate operations, efficiency, growth, innovation, and collaboration,” the CEO says. “We already have critical measures in place that help us track performance in each of these areas. As we build out more of our plan, we’ll implement additional measures to evaluate the impact of this strategy and its success.”

Recruitment, Engagement, And Retention

Stapp expects offering employees a collaborative environment in a flexible workspace will enhance morale by supporting the balance between work and personal life.

“Employee retention is a significant area of focus at Unitus,” he says. “We believe the Distributed Administrative Network will be a strong factor in recruitment and retention.”

Flexibility, that is, plus competitive pay and benefits that include student loan repayment and other incentives.

“Our hiring levels are reflective of the overall economic climate,” the Unitus chief executive says. “But our outstanding opportunities for employees are attractive to job candidates.”

The credit union is assessing each location for what it can offer, with the goal of giving employees the choice to use space at any of the DAN centers. If they choose, they also can work on-site at a single spot, in which case they’ll have a permanent workstation.

Some jobs, however, won’t move around, including branch retail staff and those who need to be primarily based at the new Tigard facility, such as facilities and technology positions.

As for the C-suite, Stapp says, it will depend on the day.

“Since the Tigard facility is the largest, the leadership team will have offices on-site,” Stapp says. “However, they’ll be able to work remotely and out of other administrative centers as they choose, giving them opportunities to connect and collaborate with employees across the organization. Our current model does not accommodate this type of engagement between employees and the leadership team.”

Geographic And Branching Considerations

The new locations might seem far-flung, but the credit union’s leaders weren’t throwing darts when deciding locations.

CU QUICK FACTS

Unitus Community Credit Union
DATA AS OF 06.30.22

HQ: Portland, OR
ASSETS: $1.7B
MEMBERS: 107,234
BRANCHES: 11
EMPLOYEES: 301
NET WORTH: 9.5%
ROA: 0.59%

“When assessing our facility needs, we recognized our employees and members are spread across a wide geographical area,” Stapp says. “Our goal was to develop distributed administrative centers to the north, south, east, and west of the Portland metro area.”

The Tigard facility will serve as the home address when it opens, but it will not be a headquarters in the traditional sense. It also will not have a retail branch because the credit union is opening another one a mile away. The Woodburn facility will have a branch.

“Whether a branch will be part of an administrative center will be determined on a case-by-case basis,” Stapp says. “We consistently evaluate our branching strategy, whether as part of this process or as a part of our regular lease renewals. We want to have branches in locations that best serve members.”

Where Next?

Stapp says Unitus is still determining where it will go next.

“We already own land in Wood Village,” he says. “So we’re evaluating whether that location can accommodate our needs. It would fulfill our desire to create a distributed administrative center east of the Portland metro area.”

Unitus Community also might reconfigure space at its Hillsboro location based on leaders’ assessment of whether it needs more than the couple of administrative stations that are already in that building.

“We’ll continue to assess the needs of our employees and members as we distribute our facilities,” the CEO says. “If a need arises, we will evaluate how best to address it, which could lead to additional distributed administrative centers.”

November 28, 2022

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