One year later, U.S. Bank branch employees reflect on COVID-19

March 23, 2021

We’ve relied on both technology and ingenuity to serve customers amid the pandemic.

From her six years as a branch manager at U.S. Bank, Deb Stallings knows it’s a complex job that calls on a wide range of talents and knowledge at any given moment. But when COVID-19 shutdown orders first went into place in late March 2020 in Denver, she found herself leaning into one skill in particular: therapist.

“I was constantly checking in with my team: Are you good? Is there anything you need?” said Stallings, who was manager of the Aurora Colfax branch in Colorado at the time. “My biggest concern was that my team knew what we were doing to keep them protected and healthy. And if they felt safe, that would reassure our customers so they would feel safe, too.”

Branches like Aurora Colfax quickly installed plexiglass barriers, ramped up staffing drive-up teller windows, and located scarce hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies and face masks. Behind the scenes, bigger digital transformations that were already underway were further accelerated to help safely serve customers from a distance – often without leaving their own homes. Just as the pandemic began, U.S. Bank ramped up the ability for a banker to “Cobrowse” – essentially share the customer’s screen so they’re looking at the same information. This new way of using this technology allowed bankers to continue to support and help customers troubleshoot any number of mobile and online banking tasks from a safe distance. By the end of the year, more than 20,000 Cobrowse sessions took place each week with customers and non-customers alike across the country.

“At the beginning of 2020 we were talking about digital evolution and really pushing our mobile app, then all of a sudden digital became a lifeline for us and our customers,” said Jason Sims, a branch manager in Sacramento. “So we were really grateful our company was already on this path.”

For Denise Haupt, who was working as a client relationship consultant at the time at a Las Vegas branch that primarily served an older population, the introduction of the ability to share a digital screen from a distance through Cobrowsing was a game changer. Masks and social distancing often made it hard to be clearly heard, and it was often awkward to have sensitive financial discussions with those constraints.

“With Cobrowse, all of a sudden it created that unity with a customer even though we were social distancing,” she said. “I can see what they had on their app without having to invade their space, and still provide this very personal level of service.”

At the same time, the ability to book appointments at a bank – which had been introduced before COVID-19 but hadn’t been widely embraced by customers yet – became a lifeline as well. Roger Ware, who was working as a branch manager last spring, saw the digital appointment process become such a vital tool that by June 2020 it was a cornerstone of the newly opened Broomfield, Colorado, branch that was designed without a teller line. Across the country, customers booked more than 1 million appointments last year – a nearly 2,200% increase from 2019.

“Appointment setting allowed us to meet with our customers at the Broomfield branch in a protected environment, and it created such a good experience all around – it gave us the time to really talk to the customers,” he said.

As some branches were closed simply because they were too small to accommodate social distancing for both staff and customers, others transformed into new ways to serve customers. Cody Bauer, a Sacramento branch manager, repurposed his temporarily closed downtown branch to serve as a call center where a collective group of nearly 20 displaced employees – wearing masks and sitting more than six feet apart – could make proactive care calls to customers of branches that had also temporarily closed. They focused on checking in on what customers needed, which in many cases was information about things like emergency loan options, the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and refinance options. It allowed these employees to develop new skills and expertise while helping meet customer needs.

“We created something really special and a valuable experience for these employees at a time when there was so much uncertainty,” said Bauer. “Purpose was our motivator. We realized our purpose every day when we spoke to customer after customer who needed our help to weather what we were all going through.”

Abdul Rutherford, a business banking relationship manager in the Portland market, was one of many bankers who volunteered to work overtime to help process the first wave of PPP loans when they came through. For 2020, U.S. Bank helped to facilitate more than 108,000 SBA-approved PPP loans, totaling about $7.6 billion.

“It was personal for me,” he said. “My customers needed me in what was one of the worst times in their life, and I wanted to be available to help as many customers as I could.”

For many U.S. Bank branch employees, their jobs now look dramatically different a year later. In many ways, the pandemic allowed employees to develop new skills and paved the way for new teams and roles focused on engaging customers and our employees in innovative ways within this new normal. 

Stallings, the former Aurora Colfax branch manager, now heads up a new team that trains the Denver market on key initiatives. Haupt has taken on a new role that dispatches her to high-traffic branches to help more customers engage in digital banking.

Ware, the former branch manager, shifted his responsibilities to continue working at the branch level as a performance coach focused on helping bankers across Denver more effectively use digital tools and create deeper customer connections. Sims, branch manager in Sacramento, says managing multiple branches now includes not only managing employee time, but also the time of his customers.

“We quickly went from mostly walk-in traffic to appointment only. Customers now understand its better to make an appointment because you don’t have to wait,” Sims said. “The time in our branches is now very structured and scheduled, so we can help our customers more efficiently and safely.” 

Kathryn Frka, who was a Phoenix in-store branch manager when the pandemic began, now heads up a team piloting new ideas for customer engagement. Many of the ideas for the team came from Frka and her team members who worked the frontlines at branches over the last year. 

“If you had asked me when COVID first started where I would be in a year, never in a million years would I have thought I’d be where I am today – leading a completely new approach and team,” she said.

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