hen Bridge Realty reopened its Bloomington headquarters to 800 agents, it required masks and vaccines for workers to be in the offices.

Nearly 5% of its agents resigned in protest.

"That was kind of eye-opening," said Arman Oskooi, operations director. "We got a lot of pushback. ... But we had to keep our staff safe."

Fast forward two years. Officials at Bridge Realty, No. 1 on the Star Tribune's Top Workplaces list of large companies, believe they have successfully set up a framework for the new reality of the hybrid workplace — a flexible blend of remote and in-office employees.

In March, as the omicron variant waned, Bridge dropped its mask and vaccine mandates. And it allows most employees to work on a hybrid schedule. Bridge also spends up to $500 a month on lunches to entice agents to come together in person to network.

Steering workplaces through the ever-changing era of COVID-19 has resulted in both challenges and rewards for employers trying to balance new expectations of employees with their own business goals. With state officials reporting that the Minnesota workforce is as tight as ever — with two job openings for every job seeker — employers can't afford to get the next steps wrong.

The Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) and the Harvard Business Review recently created a list of best practices to help employers reduce friction and create an environment where workers feel engaged, productive and valued, whether they toil from home or the office.

Best practices for managers include trusting your employees to do their jobs, making each project's mission clear and taking the time to talk to direct reports about their growth, training and career goals, even if they work off-site.

SHRM also suggests that firms nationwide use this transition time to clearly communicate. They also need to identify — and remedy — any imbalances among employees regarding flexibility, cultural gaps and overlooked workers within their organization. It's also important to show appreciation for those who show up every day.

In Minnesota, companies admit varying success and say they have learned as they go along.

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"Under normal circumstances, we are a very hands-on company. ... We have in-person events, meetings, happy hours and more. But during this time, we've had to make a pivot," said Clare Pitera, marketing manager for the Golden Valley-based Solution Design Group (SDG), which placed fifth on the list of midsize firms.

SDG's productivity improved when most of its 216 software and operations employees started working off-site at the beginning of the pandemic. Now the company is considering reducing its office space.

For HealthPartners, 49th on the list of large employers, the need for direct work with patients set many parameters for hybrid work.

Seventy percent of the insurer and health provider's administrative staff work mostly from home. But many of the Bloomington-based firm's 24,369 employees work directly with patients, which before the pandemic meant in-person. That is still largely true.

Still, technology gave HealthPartners' patients some options. Officials were surprised when thousands of patients opted for online behavioral health services instead of in-person visits, said DeLinda Washington, human resources chief.

By going virtual, "we've even seen an increase in the number of appointments kept, ... which is very different," she said.

The change worked so well, "we went through a process to really evaluate more work that could be done remotely," she said. "Now we are saying, 'Oh, maybe this could work long term.'"

Minneapolis-based builder Ryan Companies, No. 4 on the list of large employers, also has two sets of workers, with office workers hybrid, and those in the field in-person. With the pandemic and the racial reckoning after George Floyd's killing by police, Ryan created five new employee assistance groups to increase support and conversation among employees.

The company also offered free mental health counseling and launched fun, virtual tours of Ryan's latest construction projects. And it started hosting safely distanced outdoor events such as live auctions and game shows to bring together field and office staffers, said Tony Barranco, north region president.

During its "Ryan Gives Back Week," employees from construction workers to attorneys, accountants and leasing agents all headed to Lake Nokomis. Paired employees raced canoes, with the turning point manned by a worker dressed like Elvis.

The event connected all of Ryan's field and administrative teams, Barranco said.

With hybrid, "we are all still learning as we go here. It's been quite a transition," he said. "When you are going through challenges, your values [as a company] become even more critical and become the compass that you need."

SHRM member and career counselor Arlene Hirsch noted in a recent report that "friction is rising at some companies between remote employees and those required to work onsite who are jealous of their colleagues' flexibility."

The group suggests that companies struggling with that rift consider interviewing or surveying employees to uncover the underlying problems. The exercise might identify ways to give some workers more flexibility, even if just for a few hours or days each week.

Teamwork is another challenge of hybrid. Others are how to make the work run more smoothly — from which days a team should come to the office to how to run a meeting when some participants are virtual.

Jansen Werner, Aaron Jones, Angelica Bonacci and Andrea Rockman in the Allianz Life Insurance Co. offices in Golden Valley.
Jansen Werner, Aaron Jones, Angelica Bonacci and Andrea Rockman in the Allianz Life Insurance Co. offices in Golden Valley.

Alex Kormann, Star Tribune, Star Tribune

Allianz Life Insurance Co., No. 17 on the list of large businesses, held hybrid etiquette classes. Among tips: Don't slurp drinks while the microphone is turned on, and don't let in-person participants dominate the conversation in a hybrid meeting.

Going hybrid also meant emphasizing that "starting and stopping your meetings on time was important" to give in-person attendees time to walk to their next meetings, said Jenny Guldseth, chief human resources officer.

Managers started using Door Dash deliveries as a way to include remote workers in team lunches. "We are trying to be mindful about the employee experience," she said.

At the company's two-building campus in Golden Valley, one-third of workers come to the offices daily. Most others come in two or three days a week.

"So we are really living this hybrid work environment. Everything is about flexibility," said Guldseth.

To entice more workers to show up in person, Allianz hired a vendor to explore offering doggy day care on campus, she said, "because many employees got a COVID puppy," managers learned via an employee survey.

Allianz will soon spend thousands of dollars revamping one of its 16 floors into spaces for hybrid work with more conference rooms, "hoteling" desks for occasional in-person workers and a set of permanent workspaces for those who show up often.

"We'll have those in place by the fall and will have our employees come, check it out and give us feedback as we figure out how to move forward with hybrid," Guldseth said.

In the meantime, Allianz will soon start holding two-hour happy hours each week so employees can socialize to fight the isolation of working from home. The events might pull more remote workers into the office, Guldseth said.