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How COVID-19 is impacting bank branch design and function for years to come

  • The pandemic has been good for digital banking but it's also having an effect on bank branch design.
  • The size, design, and materials of the bank branch of the future will incorporate social distancing and wellness.
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How COVID-19 is impacting bank branch design and function for years to come

It's not just digital banking that is impacted by the current pandemic. As the industry thinks about banking after COVID-19, the bank branch is also being reconsidered from a public health perspective. From architecture that incorporates social distancing to the purpose of physical locations, the bank branch may never look the same.

Helping customers navigate through a bank branch is taking on new importance in the age of social distancing. In addition to well-planned interior design, wayfinding is top of mind, as banks consider optimizing the speed at which customers move through their locations. Wayfinding can include design factors as well as signage to guide customers to where they need to go within a branch. "Literally, from arrows on the floor to signage, you have to work with wayfinding to get people in a space to circulate, whether it's to a teller or a salesperson within the bank branch," said Scott Spector, a principal at architecture and interior design firm, Spectorgroup. About half of the 40 clients his firm is working with right now are in financial services.

To handle customers and employees fearful of social interaction, banks will need to educate their workforces and their customers before they walk in the door to make them comfortable to move around and interact. Some banks responded with knee jerk, short term design changes that include built-in signage and plexiglass panels. "It's like you're walking into a 7-Eleven. Those things just don't maintain durability," Spector said.

Getting people where they need to go is a huge design component because it needs to be durable, according to Spector, who spoke recently at Tearsheet's Resilience Conference. He witnessed short-term, reactive changes over the past six months, but expects a tremendous investment in near-permanent signage to get bank customers from point A to point B within a branch.

Like trends in sustainability, designing around COVID-19 will engender permanent changes in bank branch architecture and design. "10 years ago, when sustainability came in, it was new," he Spector. "People said, 'We're going to have a green wall.' Now, it just has to blend into our overall responsibility to be good designers."

Amenities within bank branches are also changing, as COVID-19 becomes a new normal. Spectorgroup, which has done work with JPMorgan Chase, has changed its design priority from amenities to wellness, switching out HVAC systems for technology that has more air changes and will allow for more airflow and better filtration.

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Restrooms in bank branches will resemble bathrooms in upscale airport lounges. To limit physical contact, there will be more individual stalls with their own light switches. "They will all have their own HVAC and you can do your thing in privacy and comfort, knowing that somebody wasn't just in that space that could, oh my god, touch this and touch that," he said.

The need to limit physical interaction with a focus on wellness means new expertise is needed for bank branch designs. In addition to mechanical, electrical, and plumbing engineers, Spectorgroup is working with behavioral psychologists and infectious disease doctors.

For transactional banking, touchless technologies will take on a greater roll in the branch. Money is seen as inherently unclean, as consumers continue to take to digital payments. "You won't see an appliance -- whether it's in a pantry or in a given space -- that is not touchless in the next two to three years," he said.

Attention to physical contact will mean that bank clients may not even sign in via iPads, like many branches have today. Instead, they'll use their own devices to interact with tellers or bankers. Whether it's withdrawing $1000 or wiring half a million dollars, there will be zero hand to hand contact.

As COVID impacts our interactions, the role of the bank may evolve, too. Spector expects bank branches to continue to get much smaller, as they already have over the years. The materials used in branches will change. Banks will introduce antimicrobial substances to the stainless steel poles on the main entry doors, for example. These surfaces will be cleaned two or three times a day, and some of the surface materials will be self cleaning. Copper, for example, will be used plentifully in future bank branches because of its antimicrobial properties, according to Spector.

As branches shrink, people will spend less time inside by design. Technology is driving down how long it takes to conduct a wire transfer or apply for a mortgage. Appointments with bankers are kept to 15 minute intervals. Banks will use technology to better understand why customers appear at a bank branch in an effort to speed their way through their experiences. Interactions with humans will be kept to a minimum.

Spector cites an experience he had recently at a Wells Fargo branch in Manhattan. He dealt with one person, who was totally on her game. She functioned from behind a protected workstation. "There were no handshakes. No pats on the back. The whole thing was bang, boom. I was out of there in 12 minutes for something that took me an hour at another branch," he said.

As for redesigns of existing spaces, Spector cautions large financial institutions against taking a bandaid approach to the COVID-19-aware bank branch.

"We're really pushing hard so our contractors don't get a call about a set of workstations with Plexiglas falling apart because the cleaning folks came in," he said. "You have to factor in durability."

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