Workplace trends come and go. The cube farm’s peak in the late ’90s gave way to the rise of open-plan offices in the past decade. And then COVID-19 sent us home from the office altogether. Almost overnight, everyone who could work remotely was required to do so, and it stayed that way for more than a year.
Now, workers are back. And businesses are working to add the best quarantine takeaways to the irreplaceable experiences of the downtown office setting.
With wider implications than whether your workspace has walls or not, the forced shift to a remote working model is leaving a mark on workplace culture. As more Minnesotans receive vaccines, downtown Minneapolis employers and business leaders reflect on how their organizations have adapted to the pandemic and what the future of work looks like—for the foreseeable future, anyway.
“We know that the next season of working in office will look different, but collectively, our downtown leaders are committed to returning employees to downtown offices in some fashion of a new future-of-work model,” says Leah Wong, vice president of external relations for the mpls downtown council. “We are hearing them acknowledge that remote work can work, but there is also a growing opinion that there is no substitute for being downtown—in office, together. The energy, the ability to make connections and meet in person, the shared experiences, and so much more.”
The elephant in every (chat)room these days is, “Are we going back to the office? If so, when?” The answer is different for every company, but most have plans in place for their employees to return.
“Our plan is to return to the workplace after Labor Day,” says Sianneh Mulbah, chief people officer for the Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx. “When we return, we’ll offer a variety of flexible work arrangements that align with the needs of our business and the needs of the employee. We’ll have some fully remote options, some traditional work schedules, and a hybrid model.”
ECMC Group chief human resources officer Sarah Strehl says their plans are more fluid, but she, too, says a hybrid model is likely the path forward. “While we continue to evaluate and craft our return-to-office plans, we are confident that we will be able to create a hybrid model that incorporates both work-from-home and time in the office.”
“The Timberwolves’ and Lynx’s most precious commodity is our employees and the relationships they have at work, so finding ways to build off the past year as they return to office together is a critical part of moving forward. We have taken [the past year] as an opportunity to grow and adapt. We’ve challenged ourselves to think of ways they can come out of the upheavals of the past year and be better on the other side.” Sianneh Mulbah, chief people officer of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx
Both the Timberwolves/Lynx and ECMC Group—a national education nonprofit based out of downtown Minneapolis with an office in Los Angeles—are members of the mpls downtown council, which is working to coordinate a safe return to downtown as companies begin bringing employees back to the office.
Over the past year, a growing collaboration among industry sectors has convened to discuss best practices on how to move forward. Thought leadership from all areas of downtown—from human resources departments to hotels and restaurants—came together to put plans in place for safe reanimation of downtown offices and community gathering spaces.
“I’m in contact with my human resource colleagues almost daily, sharing learnings, ideas, and best practices,” says Strehl, who serves on a subcommittee of HR professionals. “These connections have proven extremely beneficial as we navigate the many issues that must be evaluated as we plan for the future.”
Mulbah says the Timberwolves have also been involved in several task forces, engaging in conversations about “social impact, safety, and community—all things we associate with the downtown area.”
One result of these brainstorms is how much teamwork businesses are showcasing in the process. Everyone understands the importance of a safe return to office, and they also know that the vitality of downtown plays a pivotal role in the region’s success. That’s why, while hybrid work models will be part of future planning, there are also continued conversations and efforts to maintain a safe return to office.
“We have been connecting with downtown stakeholders, discussing the future of downtown, back-to-office plans, and preparations for downtown’s reanimation for about a year,” Wong said. “We know downtown is ready.”
Growing and Adapting
Part of future office workspace is learning from a year remote. “The Timberwolves’ and Lynx’s most precious commodity is our employees and the relationships they have at work, so finding ways to build off the past year as they return to office together is a critical part of moving forward,” Mulbah says.
“We have taken [the past year] as an opportunity to grow and adapt,” Mulbah says. “We’ve challenged ourselves to think of ways they can come out of the upheavals of the past year and be better on the other side.”
The Timberwolves and Lynx are focusing on wellness—physical, mental, and emotional well-being—and are offering sweet perks such as information from the team psychologist and fitness breaks led by Timberwolves strength and conditioning trainers.
Strehl said one key to ECMC Group’s success is “establishing a robust diversity, equity, and inclusion effort built on a strong sense of belonging, where everyone is seen, heard, and encouraged to show up as their authentic self.”
ECMC Group is encouraging informal interactions by creating “employee-led affinity groups to foster social connections and take a fun, lighthearted break with others to share a similar passion or interest.”
After a year of working remotely, building strong connections with team members is a critical part of helping bring employees back together.
That sense of community downtown helps build relationships both inside and outside the office.
“The chance run-ins with friends and colleagues,” Wong says. “It’s amazing how often impromptu meetings happen walking down Nicollet or navigating the skyway—opportunities to follow up on a previous conversation, start new ones, or just check in on life. The best part of being downtown regularly is the relationships we get to enjoy.”
Those in-person relationships with colleagues and friends, clients and partners, make the downtown experience what it is, and employers are ready to build on those relationships face-to-face.
“Communication was key to our survival and mental well-being,” says Mulbah. Strehl echoes that sentiment, adding that the power of communication flows both ways, “from leadership to their employees, but also the reverse, from employees on up.”
This article originally appeared in the June 2021 issue of Mpls.St.Paul Magazine. Read more on downtown Minneapolis, 2021 summer-style, sponsored by the mpls downtown council, here.