In-person or remote work? Two payments leaders weigh in.

As the pandemic ebbs and flows, various financial institutions and payment companies are making very different decisions about whether to have employees work in the office or remotely.

Umpqua Bank in Portland, Oregon, pivoted to a remote-office strategy in 2020, rapidly adopting new work processes and tools to keep operations flowing. It landed on a strategy that has stuck.

“We worked remotely through the entire pandemic and were incredibly successful and actually became more productive — it’s an approach that’s here to stay,” Kathryn Albright, Umpqua’s executive vice president of global payments and deposits, said at American Banker’s Payments Forum this week in Phoenix.

On the opposite side of the country in Deerfield Beach, Florida, Segpay CEO Cathy Beardsley called all of the company’s employees back to the office in July 2020 to cope amid the company’s unprecedented surge of business that required all hands on deck.

“We doubled our growth over the last two years, and having everyone collaborating in real time in the office enabled us to keep up with that growth and ensured we could quickly bring people on board through in-person training and mentorship,” Beardsley said.

Remote work is “an approach that’s here to stay,” says Kathryn Albright, left, executive vice president of global payments and deposits at Umpqua Bank. “We doubled our growth over the last two years, and having everyone collaborating in real time in the office enabled us to keep up with that growth,” Segpay CEO Cathy Beardsley says.

Keith Pitts

Both executives are 2022 Most Influential Women in Payments honorees. They described how they used organizational strategy and soft skills to achieve different — but equally successful — outcomes.

Not every employee was ready to return to Segpay’s offices when Florida lifted restrictions in May 2020, Beardsley said. The 75-employee company gave its staff plenty of space, added partitions to protect against viral spread and encouraged high-risk employees to stay at home. By July, everyone was back at work.

“I think getting people back in the office sooner rather than later helped them socially, and when I talk to other company leaders I’m afraid it would be much harder to pull workers back to the office now,” Beardsley said.

Segpay handles high-risk payments using proprietary technology. It operates in several global markets where complex and unforgiving regulations require constant vigilance and collaboration by managers and employees, she said.

To encourage the level of energy and focus Segpay’s services demand, Beardsley instituted new practices during the pandemic, including giving each employee a $100-a-week allowance for Door Dash food orders, Friday cookie festivals, frequent visits from chair-massage experts and mental health days when employees need them.

At Umpqua, consumer and business customers’ needs during the pandemic required rapid attention and innovation. Managers worked with employees to create systems and tools to enable work to continue without interruption, Albright said.

“We found multiple pathways to connect and get things done, and became more efficient,” she said.

Umpqua employees can reserve conference and meeting space at the bank’s offices through an electronic reservation system, and many still travel to meet clients when necessary, but the majority of business is still handled remotely, according to Albright.

“We used to plan an in-person meeting with customers two weeks out, and now we often say, ‘How about this afternoon?’, and we can accomplish everything we need on a whiteboard in a virtual meeting — it’s quicker than ever,” she said.

Like most banks, Umpqua struggles with attracting and retaining employees at a time when many long-term employees are retiring.

“It’s a challenge to cope with retiring employees, but we’ve found ways to promote people through our increased flexibility, and letting someone work from Idaho, for example, has allowed us to expand our pool of talent,” Albright said.

Another lesson both executives learned from coping with the pandemic’s new demands on workers was keeping a close eye on the threat of burnout.

At Segpay, a human resources manager checks in regularly with each employee to ask about his or her mental and physical well-being, according to Beardsley.

“We keep a finger on the pulse of how each individual is doing, and we make sure people take vacations and there are backups who know their job, so when people leave they can forget about work and really enjoy a break for a while,” Beardsley said.

Umpqua has created a system to make sure managers regularly reach out to employees for one-on-one conversations that cover the gamut of professional and personal concerns.

“Sometimes a check-in call planned for 15 minutes goes on for an hour, but we realized it’s important to be having these calls to understand the tenor of how people are feeling about things so we can make changes before there’s a problem,” Albright said.

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