What Value Can Physical Financial Spaces Bring To A Digital-first World?


By Jon Blakeney, group managing director, I-AM

Across the world, many banks are in the process of re-defining the purpose of their physical network, as digital innovation continues to transform customer behaviour. Through this profound era of transformation, the critical question arises: what intrinsic value do physical spaces offer in a digitally driven world?

In many ways, the immediate challenge of customers disengaging with branches – while branch running costs increase – presents a great opportunity to transform spaces that are long overdue a rethink. Although the majority of customers say they still want bank branches in their lives, the reality is that the frequency of visits are now few and far between. It’s more of a theoretical, emotional, or even nostalgic attachment.

The future for financial spaces is to focus less on a network of would-be sales centres and create a life-led strategy integrated with the needs of the local community. This will lead to a more balanced, symbiotic relationship, where banks provide valuable resources, knowledge, and infrastructure in return for customer loyalty, sustained through digital channels.

A knowledge-centric approach

There is a need to recognise that banks can be much more than mere financial service centres. Instead by becoming “knowledge hubs”, tailored to meet customer’s life needs, they will provide invaluable local resources. Customers would primarily come to these places for complex advice or troubleshooting, but these physical spaces will also play a part in making connections, sharing ideas and bringing opportunities to life.

This will allow branches to sit at the centre of a digital eco-system, reflecting the world consumers inhabit while also being a base for a mobile workforce, a shared space, used equally by customers and staff. One inspiring example of is the initiative called ‘10000 Small Businesses’ from Goldman Sachs. The programme is designed to provide high-quality, practical education and business support to leaders of high-growth small businesses across the UK. The initiative is run in conjunction with Oxford University and shows the power of blending business and learning institutions, with the goal of sharing knowledge that will help people get ahead in their lives.

The work we have recently undertaken with Bank Danamon in Indonesia is another: the branch programme supports the bank’s vision of helping people achieve prosperity by guiding them through life’s complex decisions by creating social spaces for people to come together and learn the skills they need to achieve their life goals.

A place for financial wellness

It is critical for banks to empower their customers to approach money with confidence, and with today’s economic pressures this is even more critical. Banks have the opportunity to become places where customers can discuss major life decisions in an open and welcoming environment. This must be translated into both the overall design and the personalised experience.

There are numerous parallels between finance and healthcare. When you look at the changes in healthcare, you’ll notice an increasing shift towards holistic wellness, towards guiding people to live a better life. Finance is similar in some ways. Rather than focusing on describing a solution to a problem, try to avoid the problem in the first place. In finance, by assisting people to be happier and more confident about money, you avoid a lot of the negative issues that are associated with people who struggle to manage their money, such as debt, stress, illness.

For those working in banks it can sometimes be difficult to grasp how intimidating money matters can be to some people. Yet, most of the world’s population are not confident with money. Financial discipline can still be foreign to them, they can feel awkward about talking about it, and not particularly good at managing their money in general.

People need physical environments in which it feels acceptable to discuss financial vulnerabilities; for those that may have never checked their bank account, are unable to use online banking, or are in debt. Barclays LifeSkills programme is a great example that addresses exactly these issues: specifically designed to provide an opportunity for adult learners to increase their confidence and gain new skills in relation to employability and financial capability. The Financial Gym is another such service, with its concept of “the B.F.F. – Best Financial Friend” they offer personal tutoring to customers, much like a personal fitness trainer but for finances.

A return to the centre of the community

To retain relevance in today’s rapidly evolving financial landscape, banks must re-establish themselves as pillars of the local community, a position they once held but have gradually lost. Banks, building societies and co-operatives can act as a focal point, facilitating others to come together. This is a very different role from the typical strongly branded ‘Flagship’ concept; this sits subtly within its surroundings, allowing others to shine. By becoming the local ‘host’ banks could be able to recapture a skill that they once had, to be the ultimate ‘connector’. This transformation involves more than just providing financial services; it’s about embracing the broader community’s needs and aspirations.

Turkey’s İşbank’s ‘İşMekan’ concept reimagines branches as versatile living spaces, serving as cultural hubs as well as offering banking services. The physical experience is supported with a mobile application that allows customers to find out and book for educational and social events at the venue. The US based Umpqua Bank is another example: their branches are places where people can hang-out, use meeting rooms for their own projects, attend workshops or even wellbeing classes like yoga.

The next chapter                                                                                                                                                  

While these potential directions – knowledge hubs, health-wealth centres, and community pillars – each have a fundamentally different core to their purpose, it’s not impossible however to imagine a concept that might blend certain aspects of each, or all three.

As we also look across the retail and hospitality landscape, the future of kinds of spaces, is going through a fascinating metamorphosis and banks are a core part of this.

As banking transactions are increasingly confined online – and society becomes more and more cashless – the future of physical branches must be a space where people engage, learn and share. Creating these places people want to visit, rather than have to, will be a challenge but by reflecting the changing dynamics of retail and hospitality, banks can carve vibrant, community-integrated places that are crucial to life in general.