By Scott Van Voorhis
A commercial credit analyst for Tompkins Mahopac Bank, Gemma Graham works 8:30 to 5, with a floating half hour for lunch.
All in all, a pretty typical schedule, except for the fact that Graham analyzes office building loans for the Hudson Valley-based bank from her home office in Atlanta.
The decision that led Tompkins and Graham to work out this somewhat unusual working arrangement came about more by happenstance than any grand plan, but the success of the arrangement has created a newfound comfort level with telecommuting arrangements at the nearly $1 billion financial institution, which, like many community banks, had been cautious about embracing the work-from-home revolution.
And it has provided the Tompkins Mahopac with a potentially valuable retention and recruiting tool as it competes in an increasingly tight labor market.
“So far, it has been fantastic,” Graham said. “It takes a certain type of person to work from home and be productive, and it’s good the bank recognized that in me and gave me the opportunity.”
How it Happened
There is no dearth of employees out there lobbying for the flexibility of a telecommuting schedule. But that’s not how it happened at Tompkins, where Graham found herself courted by the bank with a proposal that she telecommute full-time, not the other way around.
A credit analyst at the bank, Graham got engaged and made plans to move with her fiancé to Atlanta. But after she gave notice and started packing to leave, Graham was pleasantly surprised to find that Gerald Klein, the bank’s chief executive, wasn’t ready to let her go so easily.
The bank came back with a proposal that Graham couldn’t refuse – stay with them and work full-time out of her new home in Atlanta.
It wasn’t that the bank suddenly had the urge to start experimenting with telecommuting, Klein explained.
In fact, some employees in the bank’s marketing department have worked remotely a day or two here or there, with some facing long commutes to work or between the company’s offices, spread across the state.
Rather, capable credit analysts are hard to find these days, especially in the Empire State, he said.
Mergers and upheaval in the banking industry has decimated the ranks of credit analysts, with many having bailed out of the industry altogether.
So, having found a capable and talented credit analyst like Graham, and then having grounded her in the Tompkins Mahopac culture, the bank was ready to pull out all the stops to keep her.
“She had been a really good employee, and we hated to lose her,” Klein said. “It is very difficult to find talented people in lending and credit nowadays.”
Still, it took some convincing of the board, Klein noted, who had to overcome some initial reservations.
There were typical security concerns as well as worries about how other employees might view this arrangement and whether they too would want similar deals.
“It is something that quite frankly we debated,” Klein said.
But in the end, the technology has simply progressed to the point where a credit analyst like Graham no longer needs to be in the bank office to do her job, he noted.
Gone are the days when you needed to be near cabinets full of paper files – everything now can be sent, stored and received electronically, Klein said.
New Location, Same Routine
For all the miles between her and the bank’s home office in Brewster, N.Y., Graham’s day isn’t all that much different than other Tompkins Mahopac credit analysts.
When she starts her workday, Graham logs onto the bank’s virtual private network, or VPN, which encrypts data when it is sent out and decrypts at the other end. Graham has a dedicated workspace on the second floor of her house with an office phone that is wired into the bank’s system, complete with its own extension. Financial statements, credit reports, everything she needs to do her job can be sent to her electronically.
And no, Graham doesn’t work in her pajamas, or even her sweatpants, a question she often fields. Rather, Graham comes to work in her home office dressed to meet the world – or at least huddle with her boss or co-workers over Skype.
Of course, productivity is where the rubber meets the road at any job, whether it involves telecommunicating or not. And there are no complaints from Graham – or, more importantly, the bank – on that score, which can pretty easily track what its credit analysts are up to from the volume of the reports they produce, Klein noted.
While at times she misses having co-workers, Graham said the fact she has no commute – and none of the typical office distractions – has made her that much more efficient.
She is also handy with technology, and getting the system up and running if router or VPN goes down – essential if there is no helpful IT guy down the hall to lend a hand.
“My commute was 45 minutes – it is a huge time savings,” Graham said. “I can be ready to go instantly instead of going in, talking to my co-workers and getting a cup of coffee.”
“There also no snow days down here,” she added.
Telecommuting is not new to the financial services sector. Bank of America signed up thousands of employees for telecommuting jobs under its “My Work” program before taking a more targeted approach a few years ago. Capital One, Citigroup and American Express have all embraced telecommuting to one degree or another.
But community banks, which have long prized their close ties to their local towns and cities, have been slower to respond.
That may be poised to change, though. Tompkins Mahopac right now is out in front of many community banks when it comes to telecommuting, said John Witkowski, president and chief executive of the Independent Bankers Association of New York State. He believes the bank’s example may inspire more experimentation.
There are certainly solid dollars and cents reasons for other banks to look closely at what Tompkins has done, he noted.
It takes lots of a face time to train an employee and get them up to speed with the culture at a bank. That can take months and involve a significant commitment in time and money as the employee doing the training juggles two jobs. And there is not necessarily a long line of qualified applicants to tap for a replacement.
Even now, Tompkins Mahopac is taking things slowly, with plans to continue to review telecommuting arrangements on a case-by-case arrangement.
Some jobs just can’t be done remotely, with the most obvious example being a public-facing job like a loan officer, Klein noted.
That said, the ability to offer telecommuting has already made Tompkins Mahopac more competitive in the labor market, at least when it comes to hanging on to Graham’s services. She noted that she has been approached by a number of potential employers since she came to Atlanta, eager to tap her services as a credit analyst.
But along with her loyalty to Tompkins Mahopac, the thought of saddling up for a 45-minute commute each day doesn’t exactly thrill her now.
“I have had many calls since I moved down there, but I have politely declined,” she said. “With the Atlanta traffic, it’s not worth it.”■