The following story describes a cascading set of challenges that a large regional credit union faced in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like other organizations, the credit union needed to quickly adapt to a set of organizational headaches, if not crises. Its digitally-oriented response ultimately set it on a more competitive footing in a rapidly changing financial services landscape. Let me begin with some more conext.

In January of 2020, a credit union client which I refer to as Major Metropolitan Credit Union (MMCU) was coming off one of its most successful years. Member satisfaction scores had hit an all time high. Plans were underway to open a new branch. And profitability measures exceeded expectations. All of this changed overnight in March 2020 with the arrival of a deadly microscopic virus.

The COVID-19 pandemic thrust MMCU into an operational crisis. One employee, a marketing manager, described the situation as “surreal.” On March 17, she received a call instructing to head down to the IT department—she had been scheduled to work remotely. When she arrived, she was given a cart with a large desktop monitor (MMCU lacked laptops), a keyboard, and an ethernet cable. IT taught how to use a new VPN to “remote in” to headquarters (known as HQ), downloaded an app on her cell phone, and told her to head home—barely leaving time to gather her personal belongings.

Shortly thereafter, my consulting partner and I received an email from a member of MMCU’s leadership team. The email asked for our assistance in helping MMCU understand how the COVID-19 pandemic was impacting their culture and any best practices we might share. In a subsequent meeting, the leadership asked for our support in helping MMCU adapt to its rapidly changing circumstances. MMCU’s mangers had grown accustomed to managing by seeing employees in their cubicles (a seats-in-the-chair model) and initially proposed a series of 100-day back-to-work plans. Yet these plans failed to materialize due to sequential iterations of the virus.

In response, we proposed conducting a “barriers/breakthroughs” analysis to capture small scale innovations taking place in MMCU’s workplace culture. To document the evolving changes, we would interview a cross-section of MMCU’s employees about barriers they had encountered in working remotely, and any breakthroughs they had developed to solve these challenges. We also recruited a team of “culture journalists” to photo-document changes taking place at HQ, the branches, and home environments, proving a rich visual record of adaptations underway. By capturing these changes, we hoped to support these new behaviors and broadcast them to the rest of the organization.

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The leadership embraced this approach, and we agreed to incorporate the research findings into a mini-strategic planning meeting that would take place with the senior leadership. The goal of that meeting would be to discuss how to achieve and maintain a connected, collaborative culture among MMCU’s hybrid employees. In preparation for the meeting, we also agreed to share our findings with a group of mid-level managers with whom we had previously worked on improving cross-functional collaboration between HQ and MMCU’s branches. In the context of these meetings, participants would review the key findings, explore possibilities they offered for enhancing MMCU’s culture, and develop action steps and a timeline.

The barriers/breakthrough analysis revealed that employee productivity hadn’t suffered, and for some, actually increased with the shift to remote work. One self-described “super commuter” who previously left for the office at 4:30 AM to avoid the morning rush hour traffic, gushed about how he had recovered 5 hours in his day, making it easier to focus. Another manager described a newfound flexibility to organize his workday in ways that increased productivity while relieving stress–using MMCU’s VPN to “remote” into the office after he had put his children to bed. Employees also invented new remote processes for things like wire transfers, file sharing, and approvals that eliminated the need for paper files. COVID also accelerated MMCU’s timetable for migrating to cloud computing and enhanced security.

By sharing our findings with mid- and upper-management, and the entire organization through a virtual town hall, we created an opening to introduce a new focus for MMCU’s culture change efforts: digital transformation (DT). For MMCU, DT meant providing better services to its members, easing the lift on the part of employees, and ultimately, making the credit union more sustainable. DT also extended beyond MMCU’s IT department, encompassing the entire organization.

In an article entitled Pathways to Digital Transformation, my consulting partner and I describe some of the anthropologically informed tools that we used to facilitate DT at MMCU. These included Action Learning teams which leveraged digital tools to enhance online collaboration, augment digital product training, work out the kinks in a member service request system, and streamline MMCU’s complex ecosystem of internal systems and vendor applications. To give direction to these efforts, we also facilitated a digital visioning workshop, using future-back interviews to identify key inflection points in the financial services industry and strategies for MMCU to address them. Through the use of these tools, we leveraged the disruption of established frameworks and routines to set MMCU on a new digitally oriented direction.

About the Author: Matthew J Hill

Matthew J Hill
Matthew J Hill is an organizational anthropologist who works with mission-driven organizations in the areas of strategy, culture change, and leadership development. He works with clients in financial services, technology, aerospace, and public health. For more information on Matthew, please check out his website ( and connect with him on LinkedIn.