Outlook 2021: For Freedom Credit Union, pandemic accelerated adoption of online, mobile banking (Guest viewpoint)

Freedom Credit Union was chartered in 1922 as the Western Massachusetts Telephone Workers Credit Union. Although we have been in business for 98 years and survived through many turbulent times, it’s safe to say that we have not faced a challenge like COVID-19. We operate 11 branches in Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin counties. On March 18, we made the difficult decision to close our doors to members and offer drive-up service only.

Freedom has invested significantly in technology and services over the last few years which allows members to do business with us without the need to come into our offices. We partnered up with Allpoint ATM networks in 2019, allowing our members access to their money at over 55,000 surcharge free ATMs.

We have a very robust online and mobile banking suite of products which allow individual and business members to make deposits, transfer funds, pay bills and more, all without the need to come into the credit union.

In 2019, we implemented a 24/7 system to allow members to apply for a consumer loan online or via phone and get instant approval. The member can also close on their consumer loan from home with the help of e-sign.

Early in 2020 we began to use a video banking solution in our call centers, allowing our members to interact with our employees for various banking issues in a secure environment. We can verify the caller’s identity while helping them walk through transactions and can share documents within a secure portal. Through our drive-ups, we handed out pamphlets to our members to help them understand the ways to bank with Freedom remotely.

As we have gone through the various phases to reopen the state, we have had to adapt to new ways of doing business and rethink how we provide our banking services and how our employees serve our members. In order to keep our employees safe, we reconfigured our office space to allow proper social distancing. We utilized some conference and training rooms as temporary office space. While our branches were closed to in-lobby traffic we invested in Plexiglas shields at our teller lines and on desks where personal interactions take place.

Freedom has approximately 116 employees, and about half of our employees have the ability to work remotely: up from only 10 when the epidemic began. About 15% of our employees work entirely remote, and the rest are able to flex between remote and office.

This was no small feat pulled off by our IT Department especially in light of the whole world trying to get as many people to work remotely as possible. Remote work brings new challenges for both the employee and the company. Managers had to develop different ways to check-in and manage people from afar. Remote workers had to find ways to stay connected to not feel isolated.

Freedom has created new ways to keep its employees up to date on our products, services, industry trends and happenings within our organization. Although we already used online training software, we moved to a solution for video conferencing for on-line meetings and webinars. These face-to-face solutions allow us to have more productive communication.

Freedom also established ways to connect with our staff on a more personal basis. Senior management made several trips to our branches to celebrate our essential staff and give our gratitude by simply standing outside the drive-ups and windows with home-made signs thanking them for all they do. We had themed-dress days where we posted pictures on our intranet and people competed for prizes. We also held online social gatherings with virtual cocktail hours, virtual games and open phone line Fridays where staff could call in and just talk to others about anything on their minds.

Visits to our branch lobbies have decreased dramatically. We don’t know how much of that is due to the various ways we have had to operate to keep our staff and members safe and how much of that will remain permanent. Industry experts believe the pandemic accelerated the adoption of online and mobile banking by five to 10 years, so there will certainly be some changes in the way our members interact with us going forward.

Freedom Credit Union has been here for 98 years and has evolved from a one-room office in the telephone company to our existing organization.

COVID has required us to evolve and adapt to continue to be relevant to our members and the community. This evolution will continue.

Glenn S. Welch is president and CEO of Freedom Credit Union. To learn more about Freedom and its services, go online to freedom.coop.