How one of America’s best places to work is navigating an uncertain, high-tech future

March 26, 2020, 11:00 AM UTC

Navy Federal Credit Union has a simple strategy for navigating an uncertain future of artificial intelligence: it’s all hands on deck.

The Vienna, Va.-based credit union, which provides financial services to those connected to the U.S. armed forces, Department of Defense or Coast Guard, invites all its employees to share ideas for improving the business. It also is actively upskilling its people, preparing front-line member service representatives to offer higher-value guidance to credit union members as computer systems take on basic tasks like providing bank balances.

There’s a final, critical way Navy Federal creates a sense of solidarity as it sails into the uncharted waters of an ever-more high-tech financial services industry. Navy Federal leaders make it clear that even if things get rough and some jobs disappear because of automation, no one should expect to walk the plank. The 87-year-old organization has never laid anyone off. And it has no plans to change that informal policy, says Stacy Keller Williams, vice president of enterprise change at Navy Federal.

“I hear executives at every level of the organization who continue to talk about it,” Keller Williams says. “I’m very confident we will continue to go down that road of finding a place for our people.”

Employees share that confidence. Fully 93 percent of Navy Federal’s 21,500 employees say they believe that “management would lay people off only as a last resort.”

With that sense of financial security, Navy Federal’s employees feel free and motivated to generate ideas. Eighty-four percent employees say the organization celebrates people who try new and better ways of doing things, “regardless of the outcome.” Last year, 44 employee-generated ideas from the contact center department alone were implemented at Navy Federal. Some of them were small shifts with a big impact. For example, one employee suggested putting Navy Federal’s bank routing number directly on the home page—all but eliminating the need for the credit union’s nine million members to have to ask a customer service representative for the digits.

No wonder Navy Federal has ranked No. 1 among U.S. companies in KPMG’s U.S. Customer Experience Excellence Report for two straight years. Or that it is the largest retail credit union in the world, having seen its assets grow from $63 billion in 2015 to nearly $113 billion in early 2020. Or that it earned a spot on this year’s list of the Fortune Best Workplaces in Financial Services & Insurance. Great Place to Work, the global authority on workplace culture, just published this ranking in partnership with Fortune

For the second straight year, Edward Jones ranked #1 in the category of financial services and insurance companies with 1,000 or more employees. Rounding out the top five in the large-company group were American Express, Baird, Pinnacle Financial Partners and Veterans United Home Loans. Navy Federal Credit Union ranked sixth among large firms.

In the small and medium-size category, WestPac Wealth Partners ranked first, followed by First American Equipment Finance, Bankers Healthcare Group, Network Capital and Promontory Interfinancial Network.

To create the ranking of the Fortune Best Workplaces in Financial Services & Insurance, Great Place to Work analyzed anonymous survey feedback representing nearly 780,000 employees working in the financial services and insurance industry in the United States. Employees responded to over 60 survey questions describing the extent to which their organization creates a Great Place to Work For All™. Eighty-five percent of the evaluation is based on what employees say about their experiences of trust and reaching their full human potential as part of their organization, no matter who they are or what they do. Great Place to Work analyzes these experiences relative to each organization’s size, workforce make up, and what’s typical relative to their peers in the industry.

The remaining 15 percent of the rank is based on an assessment of all employees’ daily experiences of innovation, the company’s values, and the effectiveness of their leaders, to ensure they’re consistently experienced. To be considered, companies had to meet the Great Place to Work-Certified standard.

Great Place to Work has found that in the average U.S. workplace, only two employees experience a lot of meaningful innovation opportunities for every six who say they have just a few or no chances to innovate. Navy Federal Credit Union turns this discouraging ratio on its head. At the credit union, there are roughly six employees who report many meaningful chances to contribute new and better ways of doing things for every two who have just a few or no such opportunities.

Consider the experience of Navy Federal employee Doug Thomas. A five-year veteran at the credit union, Thomas is a training instructor for new hires. Last year, he participated in Navy Federal’s program for generating and collecting ideas from staffers. Called “Employee Voice,” the initiative is what sparked the 44 changes from the contact center alone, and it goes well beyond a traditional suggestion box. Ideas are visible to all employees, who vote on them. Those proposing ideas also get support from departments affected by the suggestion.

Thomas, for example, proposed streamlining the process for announcing training classes and their location. Instead of having to spend a couple of hours each week hand-writing information on a white board with dry-erase markers, Thomas suggested displaying the information on a digital monitor. Within a day, he received a response and help from the I.T. department to figure out the budget for the initiative.

When his idea won, Thomas not only saw the monitor installed but saw his name highlighted in internal communications as creator of the “Idea of the Quarter.”

“It was really cool, not only to be able to do it, but be recognized,” he says.

Navy Federal Credit Union is a family affair for Thomas. His wife also works at the company. Even though the financial services industry is undergoing dramatic shifts and A.I. may well eliminate whole classes of jobs in the industry, Thomas sleeps easy at night. He is grateful for the opportunity the company gave him to upgrade his skills—Thomas has advanced from a customer service position to his current training role. And he doesn’t worry about being laid off in the future. 

“I don’t have any fear,” he says. “Navy Federal’s reputation precedes it.”

Keller Williams says this same confidence is allowing customer contact center staffers in general to embrace upskilling. They are learning to become more like financial advisors, addressing more complex questions for members like what steps to take to create a savings plan even when funds are tight or how to prepare for home ownership.  

As those jobs become less robotic, Navy Federal is seeking to deepen the human connections its employees have with credit union members. Indeed, market research by Navy Federal discovered that its members appreciate interaction with an actual human being more than the typical civilian consumer. This might have to do with the way military families relocate so often, and it helps explain why Navy Federal has 343 brick-and-mortar branches worldwide and is adding more.

For another example of Navy Federal working to provide an empathetic customer experience, consider a museum exhibit of sorts created by a team led by Keller Williams. The exhibit helps Navy Federal team members better understand military life, beginning with basic training to deployments to reintegrating into civilian society.

It’s all part of the way Navy Federal is tapping the power of everyone to move into the future. In fact, it’s not just all hands on deck. It’s all hearts, heads and hands. And while the organization might have had strategies in the past for moving from point A to point B, things are more fluid now.

“There really isn’t a point B anymore,” Keller Williams says. “Change is the only thing that is constant and we are embracing the endless possibilities that come with it.”

View the 30 Best Large Workplaces in Financial Services & Insurance and the 30 Best Small and Medium Workplaces in Financial Services & Insurance. To Read Great Place to Work’s report on the Future of Work, including the impact of artificial intelligence on workplace culture, click here.

Ed Frauenheim is the senior director of content at Great Place to Work. He is co-author of A Great Place to Work For All.

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