In the not-too-distant past, we saw quiet quitting, and it appears in 2024 that we are seeing a return to layoffs. For example, Kinecta Credit Union, with 806 full-time equivalent employees, recently laid off 84 employees due to a fall in earnings. And, Kinecta is not alone in this trend. The workplace looks and feels schizophrenic.
In my observations, I saw a lot of post-pandemic hiring, a lot of employees shopping the job market, some quiet-quitting, and dissatisfaction with the return-to-work (RTW) mandates that drove job satisfaction scores down.
Another observation is that a credit union appears after a staff layoff and the credit union posts job openings. This is curious. I believe there are reasons for these mixed messages. Sometimes there is empire-building. Empire-building typically refers to a situation where the leadership focuses on expanding a department’s size (think influence), using hiring to compensate for poor execution or performance, or hiring more bodies instead of seeking efficiencies and process improvements.
The term empire-building carries a negative connotation if the expansion is seen as overly aggressive or if it deviates from the credit union’s primary mission and strategic objectives. Of course, responsible growth can enhance a credit union’s ability to provide better services and benefits to its members. However, credit unions must balance growth objectives with their commitment to member service, financial stability, acceptable expense ratios, strategic objectives, and job security for their employees.
The solution is to have processes with checks and balances designed to balance the differences between staffing wants and needs, focusing on continual improvements and processes efficiency and seeking a balance between job demands and work-life balance. Let’s look at the elements of finding the balance:
- Understand Staffing Needs: Staffing is a fundamental requirement for the smooth functioning of a credit union. The volume of daily transactions, member service demands, regulatory compliance, product and service enhancement projects, and striving for continual improvement often dictate staffing needs. Often, leadership sees a need for a new product or service, application, or technology, which becomes a project. These projects require employee bandwidth. In the vetting of projects, a resource and budget is built. Although the cost of the hardware, software, and professional services are included in the budget, the full-time employee (FTE) resource expense of installing and integrating the software is not identified in the budget. This added work becomes an add to the employee’s current job, and once it is realized that milestones are being missed in the project’s process, the leader hires more staff. I have seen where these “special” projects, some of which are strategic, can take up as much as 50% of an employee’s workday.
- Understanding Member Service Demands: Credit unions are known for their personalized service, and staffing levels must align with member demands. Most credit unions analyze transaction volumes, member inquiries, and peak times to determine the staffing requirements to maintain service levels. Credit unions have seen a deviation in the types of transactions being experienced in the branch and on the phone. When most members prefer to do their basic transactions digitally or with the mobile app, branches are now seeing a lot of complex, on-transaction-based activities in the branch and on the phone. More and more, members are going to the branch or calling on the phone to help them solve problems and to get guidance, not just for the traditional “money in, money out” activities; these activities take more one-to-one time than the basic transaction-level work. As a result, judging staffing levels in the branch or call center by transaction volume results in a credit union not having the appropriate number of staff or the needed skills available. Call centers are additionally pressured to find the right staff levels and operating times in this digital/mobile banking world. Members are likely to do their banking at home during non-branch hours. Suppose the member discovers a problem or needs help in solving a financial problem. In that case, they can get frustrated when their call is either sent directly to voice mail or routed to a third party that is only trained on transaction-level actions.
- Understanding Staffing Wants: While staffing needs are crucial, addressing the staff’s wants is equally important for creating a positive and motivated work environment. Staffing wants to extend beyond the basics and include career development opportunities, work-life balance, and a supportive company culture. These wants include:
- Professional Development – Credit unions should invest in the professional development of their employees by providing training programs and opportunities for career growth. Development opportunities boost employee morale, contribute to long-term success and succession planning, and enhance employee skills. This includes having the bandwidth so staff can pursue certifications and education related to their roles.
- Employee Well-being Programs – This is another valid want that is vital to building an energetic and engaged staff. When the credit union prioritizes the well-being of employees, it sees increased job satisfaction and productivity. Well-being benefits include flexible work schedules, wellness programs, and mental health support. Another vital piece of employee well-being is a focus on work-life balance. Work-life balance elements include flexibility of work schedules and remote work options. By fostering a culture that values work-life balance, credit unions experience reducing burnout and increasing overall job satisfaction.
- The Need for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) – DEI is essential for a credit union that brings a variety of perspectives, fosters creativity and innovation, and brings representation to the staff and membership so it is seen as a place where black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), LGBT+, and other marginalized members belong. DEI requires credit unions to consider staffing wants that align with creating an inclusive workplace, promoting diversity in all aspects of their workforce.
There are Ways to Balance Both the Needs and Wants
Make staffing practices a strategic decision that aligns with the organization’s growth goals, strategic objectives, cultural values, and leadership needs without succumbing to empire-building risks. Credit unions can follow this structured process to prevent empire-building while adding staff:
- Conduct Workforce Planning: Start by conducting a thorough workforce planning exercise. Assess the current and future needs of the credit union, considering factors such as member service demands, regulatory compliance, technological advancements, project needs, and growth projections. This analysis will provide a foundation for determining the actual staffing requirements. This planning process will ideally begin after strategic planning. Once the strategic objectives have been agreed upon and the business plans with proformas outlined, a true picture of the workforce needs can be realized. The business plans will give insights into who needs to do what and what skills are required to complete the projects and tasks required to successfully realize the strategic objectives. But just having a plan is not enough; it also requires regular workforce assessments when the credit union conducts regular assessments of how they meet member service demands, technology requirements, strategic project demands, and growth and compliance needs. These assessments will allow the credit union to adjust its staffing plans accordingly and ensure that the workforce remains agile and aligned as the economy and competitive environment evolve.
- Regular Transparent Communication: By establishing open and frank communication to understand the staff’s needs and wants and transparency with the expense ratio, leaders and hiring managers will be better equipped to make good staffing judgments. The communication effort must also include establishing channels for employee feedback, understanding engagement levels, work-life balance concerns, and access and progress to professional development goals. This “full circle” feedback loop will provide important insights into the needs and aspirations of staff, hiring managers, and leaders. This open communication is designed to foster a culture of understanding the wants of their staff and making informed decisions by hiring managers and leaders.
- Build a Cross-Training Discipline: a cross-training discipline that teaches employees to handle multiple responsibilities, ensures maximum flexibility in staffing demands, and prevents bottlenecks during peak demand times and meeting the needs of project requirements. Instead of hiring to meet peak needs, staff are better equipped to have each other’s backs during demanding times or projects. This cross-training discipline also helps an employee identify new and different career paths.
- Develop Flexibility in Staffing Models: Credit unions have historically tried to treat everyone equally, but in today’s world, the operating plans around staff and staffing models should be about equity. The goal of a staffing plan should be on what the employees need and where they need it to be their most effective, engaged, and effective employees. This means having access to flexible staffing models, cross-training employees to handle various roles, and flexibility on remote/hybrid/in-office options and work hours.
- Define Roles and Responsibilities Clearly – In most cases, someone is hired to a job description, but that job often evolves. The goal is to create an ecosystem where each employee is engaged and understands how their job contributes to the whole. Employees’ contributions to the credit union must be seen beyond their tasks. Every job must be seen as a vital component to a greater purpose, as essential in the credit union’s effort to expertly serve the membership is the goal. Before adding staff, identifying how this role advances the purpose is vital for hiring managers to evaluate the cost/benefit of a staffing addition. This ensures that new hires contribute directly to the credit union’s objectives without creating redundant positions.
- Make Performance Management at Cultural Attribute: Building a leadership culture where managers see their jobs as task managers and people managers. This cultural evolution requires discipline with one-on-one meetings, team huddles, department updates, and strategic updates. The goal is to ensure everyone understands their purpose and the intention of their work. There is significant evidence that a purpose-driven employee is more engaged and productive than someone just doing a task. Establish key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure the effectiveness of new hires and the overall workforce. Performance metrics need to be clearly communicated, and the tools for self-monitoring of these metrics by the employee are crucial. The metrics must be designed to help track employee productivity, satisfaction, and efficiency. Using these metrics gives a line of sight to assess and adjust staffing levels based on performance and avoid unnecessary expansion.
- Evaluate Technology or Automation Options – The hiring manager should investigate technology and automation options before adding a person. By talking to the credit union’s current platform, software, and application vendors, it may be possible to leverage tools and additions to automate and streamline processes. Investing in advanced banking systems, digital platforms, and automation tools can optimize operational efficiency, allowing the credit union to grow without a proportional increase in staff.
Achieving the right balance between staffing needs and wants is an ongoing process for credit unions. This balancing process is a dynamic process that requires continuous evaluation and adaptation. Credit unions prioritizing operational necessities and employee satisfaction create a harmonious work environment, enhancing member experiences, the comfort of reliable job security, and sustained success.