When COVID-19 abruptly sent employees at a Minneapolis digital media agency home to work, there was one team member whose companionship they could still enjoy.
Ogee the office puppy was available to spend weekends with workers from Ovative Group, upon request.
"There were obvious struggles when we went remote. Some of our people dealt with family care issues, loneliness, the isolation," said Erin Aberg, vice president of talent services and Ogee's main tender. "People could pick her up for the weekend as a way to connect. It was a creative way to address a need."
Managing a hybrid workplace has some things in common with raising a puppy: It requires patience, a sense of humor and a willingness to put up with some messes. Most of all, clear and consistent communication and the ability of both sides to read signals is crucial.
Top Workplaces have developed a variety of communication methods to keep their teams clued in and connected as more shift to the hybrid model, with workers spending some time in traditional offices and other time "working elsewhere," as senior management at UCare calls it.
To adapt, UCare formalized communications in an effort to make sure all employees were seeing the same information at the same time. The health plan provider — ranked 11th on this year's large Top Workplaces list — upgraded conference rooms with higher quality cameras and microphones to support hybrid meetings. In return, there's an expectation that employees dialing in from their remote workplaces will appear on camera at every function they participate in.
"When we can see each other, [and] facial expressions, it brings energy to conversations and our team members feel more engaged and connected with one another," said Pat Schmitt, UCare's chief administrative officer. "It helps everyone read the room."
UCare regularly stages catered lunches for its workforce and sends Grubhub gift cards to hybrid staff so they can chow down alongside their onsite peers. That gesture is one of the smaller measures UCare has taken to make sure its hybrid and remote team members don't lose an edge because they are not physically present.
The nonprofit has also formalized a policy to bring meetings to a complete stop when the cameras go off. That's meant to ensure that decision-making doesn't continue in the small talk as a gathering winds down, excluding virtual team members.
"In our employee surveys, we heard from people working elsewhere that they want a level playing field," explained Schmitt. "We want there to be fairness, so that an employee who is in the physical line of sight of a leader doesn't have an advantage when it comes to coaching and career development."
Hybrid the hard way
At Froehling Anderson, No. 9 on the small companies list, the March 2020 shutdown forced everyone to flee the office and work remotely at the CPA firm's busiest time of the year, with tax deadlines looming.
"People had to change. I was skeptical if we could get the work done, but they did it. It was impressive. It would have been hypocritical if we would have said, you have to come back and have your butt in a chair at the office," said Al Delage, a partner who heads the tax group.
Now a hybrid worker himself, Delage comes into Froehling Anderson's St. Louis Park office a few days a week for meetings but otherwise works remotely at his lake place near Princeton. As a senior-level manager, he thinks his embrace of his hybrid status has helped set the tone to allow others to choose the option.
"It's always been our culture to be together, but culture is not four walls. It's how we work together, how we treat each other," he said.
The firm now emphasizes regular check-ins between top leaders and hybrid staff, especially junior team members. The importance of strengthening such contact was a lesson learned the hard way.
"We hired some bright people in the middle of the pandemic and a few left; we weren't immune to the Great Resignation. They never formed that connection. When we saw that, we stepped up efforts with communication," Delage said.
"Retention is a big deal for us; we put a lot of effort in recruiting, hiring and training and it's costly to replace staff."
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis writer.