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Reallocating Idle Time in the Branch

August 1, 2014

This article originally appeared in Credit Union Times

By W. Michael Scott, President / CEO at FMSI

“Idle time”the periods during which branch staff is not performing account-holder-facing transactions or other meaningful tasks—presents a major challenge for financial institutions (FIs). An FMSI study has determined it is common for idle time to account for up to 30% of the time a FI employee spends during paid working hours at the branch.

Ironically, idle time does not have to be non-productive time. Effective management, paired with employee training, accountability and scheduling of tasks within defined idle time, can help FIs and their staff put idle time to better use. In this article, we’ll explore specific strategies that help FIs structure idle time and then enact targeted plans to use it productively.

Idle Time: Bad Business for Good Employees

Idle time has become such a negative bottom line impact that, in many of the staff exit interviews from FIs used in FMSI’s studies, departing employees cite boredom from idle time as one of their reasons for dissatisfaction. FIs try to fill idle time, but often do so ineffectively because it has previously been unpredictable and can be short-lived.

Employees may be afraid to walk away from their station for fear that the FI will suddenly get busy. Or, they may start inappropriate, complicated activities and end up overly focused on those when a member is waiting to be served. This loose approach tends to dilute service and reduce the accuracy of whatever task the employee is performing at the time.

Financial Pain and Drain

The performance differential between FIs that do and do not optimize idle time can vary drastically. One example is the $864 million Kansas-based Meritrust Credit Union, which has transformed how it is handling staff idle time by scheduling an appropriate number of employees at all times, identifying lull periods in transaction activity, and then assigning specific sales, service and training tasks during these times.

For the project, Meritrust’s management team decided to set a first-year goal of increasing the FI’s productivity by 10%, an accomplishment it was able to achieve within seven months of program roll-out.  Meritrust alsoreduced its teller labor cost per transaction (LCPT) from $1.09 to $0.96 in its first year, resulting in $156,000 inannualized labor cost savings. The FI’s second-year goal is another double-digit productivity increase, with correlating reductions in LCPT.

Strategies that Work

Meritrust and other FIs gain control of idle time through several mechanisms, including employee education and training for both productivity and accountability, and proactive staff scheduling. Meritrust’s success with scheduling was facilitated by intelligence gathering that enabled the FI to gain a firm grip on forecasting account holder traffic—including the predicted incidence of idle time—and then structure its schedules around those forecasts.

There isn’t enough room in this article to discuss the specifics of choosing (or developing) a technology solution to achieve precise scheduling through accurate forecasting. For more information, reference FMSI’s white paper on workforce utilization.

Fortunately, implementing a FI-wide scheduling system is not an absolute prerequisite to achieving some improvement in idle time management. Without a dedicated technology solution to assist in identifying idle time periods, you can rely on observation and the opinions of supervisors to identify periods where your staff tends to sit idle. For these periods, plan ahead to designate one or more employee to perform idle time tasks, then track the results—and how accurate your scheduling estimates were—to provide data for further program tweaking.

Turning Idle Time into Productive Time

One of thekeys to helping your staff achieve better use of idle time is to train them when to perform tasks and what tasks they should attempt, then hold them accountable for initiating these tasks during your identified “slow periods.” Following are a few ideas to get you started.

1.       Have back office departments define short, special projects that could be handled in the branches during idle time. (I.e., every department has some kind of file scrubbing efforts to be done.)

2.       Develop a positive outbound calling program to account holders during idle time. The message needs to be one of value to the account holder.

3.       Create short cross-training programs and have staff work together on training during idle time.

4.       Instruct idle employees to assist the lending department with paperwork for filing titles, recording documents with appropriate agencies, etc.

5.       Ask staff for suggestions on how to better utilize unscheduled identified idle time, and you will receive many suggestions.  No one wants to sit idle and be bored.

Achieving Optimal Results

Surveys show that account holders will wait for assistance as long as five minutes, on average, before they become dissatisfied. Yet, many FIs over schedule, because they are afraid to let an account holder wait for even a minute. To make the most of your program, take advantage of account holder wait time expectations. Schedule as precisely as you can and establish specific timeframes for “idle time” work. Then, instruct theexcess staff to leave their stations during these work periods and not re-engage account holders unless management instructs them to do so.

If you are still struggling with inefficient use of idle time after initiating your program, consider investigating staff scheduling technologies, which typically include daily idle time measurements per individual staff and branches. Several companies offer these types of solutions, and they have documented benefit in achieving better branch productivity—including idle time reduction.

Final Thoughts

As technologies such as online and mobile banking continue to push transactions out of the branch, staff idle time will only grow for FIs that do not proactively address it.  Having branch management keep a close watch on its staff’s use of idle time and implement proper scheduling tools, training and awareness programs will enable them to put excess labor capacity to work. The results will surprise you.

BIO, W. Michael Scott, FMSI
W. Michael Scott is President and CEO of Alpharetta, Ga.-based FMSI, which provides financial institutions with business intelligence and performance management systems for efficient branch staff scheduling and lobby management. He can be reached at

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