Change is hard — especially when it's thrust upon you overnight or in a matter of weeks.

When the COVID pandemic hit, all workplaces tried to continue, with varying degrees of success. Eventually a routine developed. On-site, there were safety measures and workarounds to supply issues. For departments sent home, a new way of communication — including Zoom or Teams.

Work culture inevitably changed. Now employers are struggling with how to keep the flexibility workers say they crave, and still reignite the innovation and team-building that seemed to bubble up pre-pandemic when groups were together in person.

Bosses seem to want to revert to old norms, or at least some of them, while workers are pushing back. Last month, Amazon workers at the company's Seattle headquarters walked out to protest a back-to-the-office policy.

"There is tension," said Jim Link, chief human resources officer for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). "Employees realize that even in the labor market we have today that there are options for them. There's lot of research out there that basically says that if my employer doesn't offer flexibility and agility in the work schedule, I'll look elsewhere. In this labor drought that we are in right now, you can absolutely bet that employers are paying attention to that."

Of CEOs surveyed in the fall, 85% believe hybrid arrangements sap productivity. The authors of the Microsoft Work Trend Index dubbed it "productivity paranoia."

Workers, though, say they like their more flexible schedules and are still wrestling with issues like child-care worker shortages, helping aging parents and juggling appointments that used to require taking a day off. Commutes are shorter, and remote work in many cases allows them to finish work on their own schedules.

Nearly three-quarters of those who work at least some of the time from home say it helps with their work-life balance. More than half say it helps them "a lot," according to a Pew Research Center survey published in March.

Younger workers have come to expect that flexibility. Many are looking for new positions if they don't get it, too. About one-third of people who work from home most of the time would like to be fully remote, according to the Pew survey.

From December through March, 12 million Americans quit their jobs, reaching close to the record level set in 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even with recent layoffs at national tech companies and locally at 3M, C.H. Robinson, Best Buy and Medtronic, Minnesota's unemployment is still at 2.8%.

That means there are still twice as many job openings as there are job seekers.

A growing number of women surveyed in March are switching from traditional employment to freelancing, partly because they prefer to work from home and want more flexibility in their schedules, according to a new study published by the Freelancers Union in collaboration with Fiverr, a site connecting businesses with freelancers.

More women also cite a desire to avoid an unpleasant or toxic work environment. More are going out on their own, too, especially women.

There were an estimated 6.7 million independent professionals last year, up 2.2% from 2021, the studay found.So Minnesota employers walk a tightrope when demanding more rigid schedules or mandatory days at headquarters.

Organizations need to manage change — again, HR pros say. And there's no proven playbook for coming back after a pandemic that upended not only corporate America but everyone's out-of-work lives from children's schoolwork to grocery shopping.

Some firms stumble. Others will master it.

What experts are seeing emerge is a compromise — one that is hybrid and more complicated to manage than either fully on-site or fully remote.

"The number of senior managers requiring employees to be in the office five days a week is gong down, not up," Link said.

Office occupancy rates nationwide have not budged since the beginning of the year. And, through tracking mobile phone data, said that office visits in 11 cities as of late April were just over 60% of what they were in 2019, little changed from early February.

Today, 32% of companies report their workers are back in the office at least part time, up from 13% last fall, according to a study by outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

Of firms shifting to hybrid attendance, 29% require an in-office presence twice each week, while 26% require three days a week and 14% demand attendance four days a week.

"There is a learning curve" to hybrid, said Jamie Woell, Minnesota market leader at the tax and accounting firm RSM U.S, which has 1,089 workers in Minneapolis, Duluth and Rochester.

Before the pandemic most workers at RSM — which is 11th among large companies on the Star Tribune Top Workplaces list — worked at least four days either at the firm's offices or those of a client.

But during the pandemic, younger accountants no longer sat side by side with their experienced colleagues, able to ask spontaneous questions as they were reviewing client books or learning the company's software programs.

RSM has tried to keep a fluid back-to-office policy while also encouraging on-site mentoring. Shown in this file photo is the company's offices in Minneapolis.
RSM has tried to keep a fluid back-to-office policy while also encouraging on-site mentoring. Shown in this file photo is the company's offices in Minneapolis.

Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

The younger accountants "expressed frustration," Woell said. "Their learning curve is more steep. It took longer for them to learn our trade and our craft."

All aspects of the work slow down by going remote. "Keep in mind that our clients are working remotely, too, so it's kind of a double-edge sword," he said.

Now, the company has a more fluid, flexible work model where some workers come into the office one or two days a week. Others are there three days a week, said Adam Mehl, RSM's market development manager.

"Personally, I love it," said Mehl, who joined the company in September. "It's definitely hybrid. And then there are some full remotes who never come in. But it ebbs and flows."

The change is upending norms beyond schedules. A Challenger, Gray & Christmas survey in May found that the percentage of employees relocating for new jobs dropped from 7.7% in pre-pandemic 2018 to 1.6% in the first three months of this year.

"In the 1980s and '90s, nearly a third of job seekers would move for new positions," said Andrew Challenger, senior vice president of the Chicago-based outplacement firm. "The reluctance to move is possibly the result of job seeker demand for remote work options."

At the same time, the firm found in a different survey that employers are starting to issue fewer remote-only job offers — 39% vs. 73% in fall 2022.

"Many employers are recalling workers to the office, at least for part of the time. Hybrid work is becoming much more common, and job seekers who are holding out for fully remote may have to concede some time to the office," Challenger said.