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Most businesses anticipate longer stretch of employees working from home, DEED commissioner says

Alex Jokich
Updated: September 30, 2020 06:28 PM
Created: September 30, 2020 06:23 PM

Almost half of business owners in Minnesota do not expect their workplaces to go back to "normal" for at least six months, according to a new survey.

The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development created a new tool to share updates regarding the impact of COVID-19 on businesses across the state, using data from the Census Bureau's Small Business Pulse Survey.

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"Right now, most major cities are under 10% in terms of office occupancy downtown," said DEED Commissioner Steve Grove. "And most businesses are telling us they anticipate a longer stretch of working from home."

According to the most recent survey from Sept. 19, 13% of Minnesota small business owners report they have already returned to normal operations, 4% believe they will return to normal within three months, 10% believe it will take four to six months and 45% believe they will not be back to normal for at least six months. The survey also found 10% of businesses do not expect to return to their previous workplace operations.

"Our decision to return more individuals to the office will be data-driven, not date-driven," said Kristi Fox, chief human resources officer at Securian Financial in downtown St. Paul.

Securian is a Fortune 500 company with more than 3,000 employees in the U.S. and Canada, providing financial services such as investments, insurance and retirement.

Fox said, at the start of the pandemic, the company shifted nearly its entire workforce to remote work within one week, offering $500 to each employee to set up their home offices.

"We're really looking forward to a day when we can invite more people into the office when the time is right," Fox said. "But we've told our employees that any required return to the office won't be any earlier than January of 2021. And even then, we will bring people back in phases, starting with those who volunteer to come back into the office. Our plan is to have our full employee population back only once there is containment of the virus or a vaccine available for everyone to participate in."

Fox said, in the meantime, the company has poured $4 million into safety updates at their downtown offices, from Plexiglass in high-contact areas to needlepoint bi-polar ionization technology, which is said to deactivate virus particles in the air.

Fox said the company is also having conversations about the future of their office space, including the possibility of remote or hybrid work for some employees even after the pandemic ends.

"COVID-19 is really a worldwide experiment on why we even come to an office space in the first place. We're really focused right now on reimagining the way we work," Fox said. "We don't believe we'll return to the prior state and we also don't think maintaining this current state in the right answer either, so we're spending a lot of time and energy now in preparing for what our future should look like."

Grove said, overall, 890,000 Minnesotans started working from home during the pandemic and the shift may permanently change the way some businesses operate.

"While working remotely may not be ideal in every situation, there are a lot of efficiencies to it, when you think about commute time, when you think about productivity when you think about attracting workers who might not even live in our state. And thinking about the worker experience, even thinking about how we use our time with meetings and syncs and check-ins, there's a lot you can do over email and digitally," Grove said.

But, he said, many Minnesotans are also eager to return to the workplace.

"It's challenging working from home. It's difficult," Grove said. "You don't have that same in-person interaction and we know that the collaborative power of being in the same place is really an important factor in business growth and business success. And there is a psychological effect to all this. There's kind of a 'COVID fatigue' that sets in, so going into the workplace can be, and we hope will be at some point soon, a chance to re-energize and connect with other people."

Fox said she believes bringing people into the office also helps stimulate the local economy, with workers visiting local shops and restaurants. She said Securian has been in St. Paul for 140 years.

"We call downtown St. Paul our home. We believe it's important for us to remain part of this community," Fox said. "The businesses being downtown are key contributors to the overall ecosystem and when we're not there, when the business people aren't there, things are different. And so we are anxious again to get back when the time is right."


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