Even before the pandemic, bank customers had increasingly migrated toward online and mobile banking products to conduct simple banking functions. The widespread temporary closure of bank lobbies in 2020, which linger in some areas today, has called into question the relevance of the brick-and-mortar branch, especially after banks successfully migrated much of their workforce to remote home offices. As the industry ponders its “new normal,” BankBeat reached out to bank architects around the Midwest to get their input. Here, Matt Schindler of WDM Architects, Wichita, Kan., to gives his thoughts on how the last year might influence a bank’s use of space.
Q. Prior to the era of social distancing, we saw a move toward open office designs and collaborative workspaces. What is the future for this open-concept design in banking?
Matt Schindler: It’s possible these designs will go away, but it’s too early to condemn them. We are still seeing a lot of folks working from home. It will be tough to judge the trend until people get back into offices.
Lately there has been a trend toward more relationship building, even for simple customer service transactions, some banks have moved to sitting down with people side-by-side in comfortable chairs or at a table versus sitting across from one another at a desk. The notion behind relationship banking is still valid but the way it is delivered will be reevaluated.
Q. We used to take infrastructure for granted, but we saw weather-related rolling blackouts disrupting life for a large swath of the country. What sort of contingency planning goes into your designs to help bankers ensure continued operations in the face of crises?
Matt Schindler: Typically a bank will have a plan to have a back-up generator to protect critical systems, its data, its computers or servers, its security. Those systems have a pretty small energy load. But, we are seeing more bankers putting back-up generators in their branches too.
But if we are looking to have emergency back-up systems that encompass heating and cooling systems, then you’re looking at generators that are two to three times as large. But, if you’re operating as a core service provider in the community, and many banks are, maybe you are opening space for children to learn or opening a vaccination center in your bank, then it might make sense to have the ability to have that backup power. Do you want to remain open for your neighborhood?
Q. Are there unique strategies you see that are helping draw people back into banks?
Matt Schindler: We are still hearing questions about how to get employees back safely. Some employees are not ready to come back. Banks compete for employees just like any other business. They want to do the right thing for them. So that’s the focus for now. Getting customers back will come next.
Q. What’s it been like having to take public health into account as you embark on a new design? How are you learning new technologies and adapting your approach?
Matt Schindler: Some of what we’re learning comes out of the education industry. Schools have been hit hard by this thing and it’s been tough for kids to learn remotely. Schools have helped us understand where the greatest risk of transmission comes, whether in the classroom, the lunchroom, or the gymnasium, and the things we are learning can translate into office design. By taking those cues, we learn that higher rates of virus transmission are in break rooms and large cafeterias. So we look to the mechanical engineers to help us in those areas rather than focusing on the airflow into private offices.
Large spaces with lower partition walls, those types of spaces aren’t necessarily doomed, but we are looking at how air flows through those spaces and what air sterilization practices we can implement to limit transmission. That may mean physical renovations. I think we will have to retrofit a lot of buildings. Maybe you get rid of the large common cafeteria and create more smaller kitchenette type spaces. The solution may require changes to the mechanical systems.
Some products aren’t standing up to today’s cleaning regimen. If you are spraying handrails and wiping door knobs every day, it’s having a big impact on the lifespan on these things. We have a painted handrail that gets wiped with a Clorox wipe every night; after a few weeks, the finish started to feel sticky. We are looking at materials that are inherently antimicrobial, certain counter materials and laminates.
Q. What trends do you see unfolding in bank architecture in the next 12-24 months?
Matt Schindler: Banks with a strong focus on commercial customers will probably continue to foster relationship banking without the need for bricks and mortar. There are plenty of digital products available for those types of clients. Maybe they’ll fit in an ITM that connects to a call center into their drive-up bay or direct people to use remote deposit capture. But a full-service branch that focuses retail or consumer services, the sort of bank that follows the rooftops, will remain relevant.
Q. How has the last year been for your firm?
Matt Schindler: Everyone hit the brakes to some degree. Some projects had the funding to push ahead. But we have taken a different look at projects, talked to engineering and others at the beginning. Some were ready