Thought to be endangered by the twin threats of mobile banking and the COVID-19 pandemic, bank branches it turns out, still have plenty of life left.

The Financial Brand reports that an FDIC report released at the end of September showed a net decline of 1,463 bank branches between July 1, 2019 and June 30, 2020. That’s about 12% higher than last year, but not the tsunami some analysts were predicting. Banks closed 2,642 branches while opening 1,179.

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Zeroing in on just the pandemic months from March through August this year, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency received notice of 893 branch closings. For the same period in 2019, 967 notifications were submitted.

However, the trend is clearly headed down, if slowly. Over the last 10 years, the banking sector averaged 1,861 closures and 982 new branch openings annually. In 2011 there were about 90,000 bank branches. As of the end of June 2020, there were just over 80,000.

Because of regulatory requirements, “It’s hard to close a branch,” Richard Walker of Deloitte Consulting told Forbes. But that’s not the only reason, he added, “Banks still view branches as a critical part of their footprint.”

So do consumers, including those who have embraced mobile banking for the first time during the COVID lockdown. Research by the Simon-Kucher & Partners consulting firm reported in the ABA’s BankingJournal found 54% of customers would open an account only at a branch. A majority would visit a branch to open a business account and 69% said they’d go to a branch for a mortgage, despite the availability of online mortgage lenders.

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That survey also found customers willing to walk or drive longer distances to do business in a bank branch.

Still, 42% of customers say even after business returns to normal they expect they won’t be visiting branches as much.

Mindful of the trend toward online banking and the need to compete with the fintechs, bank executives are looking to transform branches as places that are mostly transactional to focus more on meeting customer financial needs. “I think there’s a goal for branches turning into more advice centers than transaction centers as they were in the past,” Bruce Van Saun, chair and CEO of Citizens Financial Group told Forbes.

That might just be a winning formula. In another, recent Simon-Kucher & Partners survey, consumers said a bank’s reputation, insured accounts and the bonus offered for opening an account are their top three reasons for choosing a bank. But next are “features that make saving engaging and fun” and how the bank values their loyalty.

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Companies Are Finding Virtual Recruiting to Be More Efficient

It takes a little getting used to, but companies are finding that recruiting executives remotely offers more than enough benefits to make up for the lack of in-person meetings.

“There are many ways where the virtual recruitment is more efficient than what we did before,” said Jacqueline Welch, chief human resources officer and chief diversity officer at mortgage-finance giant Freddie Mac.

She told The Wall Street Journal that Freddie Mac has remotely onboarded 250 employees since mid-March when the government sponsored home loan company closed down its offices and had employees work from home.

Just this month, Welch said, the company hired a new CFO, also virtually.

In another example cited by The Journal, Nielsen Global Connect, a part of the US research company Nielsen Holdings PLC, hired a new CFO with all but a single in-person meeting with the CEO.

“I will admit that, in the end, it felt a bit odd to hire a CFO who I had never met,” CEO David Rawlinson told The Journal. “So we met at my house and talked briefly through masks, properly distanced in the backyard.”

The Boston Business Journal described how Massachusetts tech startup Drift, Inc. hired a new chief revenue officer to lead its 100-person sales team entirely remotely. The publication described the month-long interview process as being conducted via phone calls, video chats, emails, WhatsApp and text messages.

“In the back of my mind, and the rest of our minds, we expected that at some point we would meet him and then we would probably be going back to normal,” Drift CEO David Cancel said. “That just never turned out to be the case.”

Virtual recruiting offers several advantages, executive search recruiters explained. Besides the substantial savings on flights, hotels and meals and avoiding travel hassles and scheduling conflicts, remote hiring is quicker.

Cathy Logue, an executive recruiter who leads the CFO practice, said a recent search for a senior executive was completed in three months. “If you had asked me in January if this was possible I would have said, ‘Absolutely not,’ in no uncertain terms.”

There’s another, less obvious, benefit to remote interviewing.

“So often, when you meet someone in person and you spend time with them, there’s a lot of things beyond the communication happening … and some of that can bias you in the decision-making process,” Cancel said. “This let us focus more on the actual substance of the conversation.”

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Bank Uses Lockdown to Train New Managers, Refresh Others

Just days before the UK announced a coronavirus lockdown, Lloyds Banking Group launched a training program for new line managers.

Even for seasoned managers, moving to an entirely virtual world while working remotely for the first time posed exceptional challenges. For new managers, it could have caused training to fall completely off the priority list.

Fortunately for the global firm, much of the program was online, and with the flexibility of reduced banking hours and few meetings, managers had more time for learning, said Sharon Hutchinson, Lloyds’ senior HR manager for management and leadership development.

Speaking at a virtual conference last month, Hutchinson explained that since the training program was designed in modules – some only 5 minutes; none longer than an hour – managers could access the program between other commitments. “People might have time either side of working commitments at the moment and the whole program is available across personal devices,” she said in report on the HR site PersonnelToday.com.

The program was designed around what Hutchinson said were “moments of truth” managers encountered in their day-to-day interactions. The development team tested the program with subject matter experts, learning representatives within different parts of the business, and with learners themselves.

“We wanted the learning to focus on those new to line management but offer something that would also benefit others. It could also be a springboard for more advanced training,” she said, adding that participation ““way exceeded our expectations.”

Two months into the launch, Hutchinson said 8,433 modules were started and 7,199 have been completed. “Business areas have really taken it on board – they feel now is a great time to raise their bench strength and get this cohort of new managers upskilled.”

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