EAGAN, Minn. — Nick Karg, a human resources employee at Prime Therapeutics in Eagan, is eager to be back face-to-face with his co-workers after working remotely during the pandemic.

Karg spent the last year and a half working from home. When Prime Therapeutics’ office opens in August, he plans to go in-person once a week, depending on business demands.

“The biggest struggle was changing your communication style, how you interact with individuals, what the expectations are,” Karg said. “A portion of our staff also misses seeing each other face-to-face, that collaboration, those drive-bys. I’m just very excited to have that opportunity to do that and to be able to reconnect with some people on that level.”

Experts say that while the COVID-19 pandemic challenged workers — forcing them to adjust communication styles and expectations — many were just as productive working from home as in-person, something that might change the nature of work going forward.

Now, with many companies asking employees to return to the office, another adjustment period awaits workers who spent more than a year in makeshift offices in their homes.

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Lessons learned

Many workers and their employers learned lessons about their jobs from their time working remotely.

University of Minnesota psychology professor Richard Landers conducted a study to see how work habits and productivity have been affected by the pandemic. The 500 participants, spread across different fields in the U.S., checked in once a week during the first five months of the pandemic, reflecting on their remote-work experience.

Drawbacks most mentioned included people not being familiar with working from home and they did not always have the technology — such as Zoom software — to facilitate it. However, they weren’t less productive, Landers said.

“For the most part, if one’s job can feasibly be done at a distance, doing it at a distance does not seem to harm job performance much, if at all,” he said. “We were just very surprised to see that the mean levels of self-reported like ‘How effective are you at your job?’ just didn’t really change in the beginning or toward the end. People felt just as effective as they had before.”

Theresa Glomb, a professor at the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management who specializes in workplace well-being, reiterated that studies show people can be more productive remotely.

“We’ve shown that when people are working remotely, even a few days, that people can be more productive. They can be happier. They are satisfied. They can be more engaged,” Glomb said.

Landers said the main challenge with remote work was losing the nonverbal communication that workers are accustomed to. Through practice during the pandemic, people grew more accustomed to new interaction styles, becoming more comfortable with the idea of remote work.

“One of the other big challenges that we saw is the need to create social connection. One of the things we know about work is that high-quality social connections are really important for workplace wellbeing. So that was really hard,” Glomb said.

Returning to the office

After more than a year of remote work for many, employees are beginning to work in person more frequently. Workers and employers are finding how best to adjust.

Before the pandemic hit, Landers had begun his research trying to re-create nonverbal and subtle aspects of human communication with virtual reality. The pandemic showed Landers the importance of this work and its impact on virtual communities.

Landers and Glomb said remote work is here to stay for many. The self-determination theory says that people seek a feeling of autonomy, competence and belonging in a work environment, Glomb said.

“A lot of people are feeling that they really enjoyed having a more flexible work environment,” Glomb said. “People really like that autonomy, being able to say, ‘I’m going to manage my schedule.'”

Glomb is encouraging her students to focus on the advantages that may come with remote work instead of what experiences they may be missing out on. She says having reflected on their jobs during the pandemic, students are now selecting jobs more carefully, factoring in their preference, she said.

As for the future of work, Landers says that people will be moving toward more hybrid models, blending in-person and remote.

“This (pandemic) just shoved us along. And now that the door’s been opened, I don’t think there’s any closing it,” he said.

Although several local companies continue to offer remote options, others have already started resuming in-person work, designing unique plans to best suit their needs and their employees’ needs.

A hybrid model

Karg and Kelley Loughrey, who both work at Prime Therapeutics, plan to return to the office in early August with a hybrid model.

The company conducted a survey and found that 93 percent of more than 3,000 employees who responded said they were doing OK or better working from home.

In the survey, they also found what people were struggling with — a lack of workplace connections, learning new technology and mental health.

“People miss each other. I mean, gosh, we were homebound for a long time. I think people really recognize that these social relationships we build at work are really important,” said Karen Lyons, senior director of public relations for Prime Therapeutics.

Prime Therapeutics is opening back up with a new “Hub and Home” strategy. One-third of their 3,000 employees in Minnesota will be in the Eagan office, rotating depending on the week or month. Their hybrid model allows individuals to work remotely and use the office to gather for activities that require it.

“I would say hybrid work is here to stay, really. For us to remain competitive as an employer, we’ve got to continue to offer this,” Lyons said. “I think this opens up a lot of opportunities for us to be able to get the best talent and, heck I’ll just say, like for us to win, we need the best talent and we need to be flexible and offer employees good benefits in this kind of flexible environment.”

‘I miss my shoes’

Other large companies in the area have opened up their offices for critical staff.

St. Paul-based Ecolab was at 20 percent capacity at the start of summer. The company expects to increase workers in the office during the summer and is aiming for a complete return after Labor Day.

3M and Medtronic also are beginning to increase their in-person numbers. Many of their employees worked in plants and distribution centers during the pandemic, but as guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention change, their co-workers will join them in the coming months.

Employees look forward to leaving their homes, coming back to their workplaces and getting some regular interactions with their co-workers.

“I miss my shoes,” Loughrey said. “I am really looking forward to it. I can’t be the only one who feels that way.”

Landers and Glomb had the following tips for workers returning to the office as well as employers:

Tips for employees

  • Be intentional about the necessity of working in the office or remotely. The pandemic helped employees realize what parts of their jobs require them to be in-person. “You need to have a reason for it. And before now, we have really treated in-person as the default,” Landers said. “I think that mindset has to change. We instead need to conceptualize it as there are certain activities that are well-suited to in-person work. There are certain activities that are well-suited to remote work, and we need to be cautious and planned and purposeful about what types of work we assign to each modality.”
  • Try intention management instead of time management. “Figuring out how you can be really intentional. Instead of thinking time management, think intention management. What are my intentions for the day, the workday? What are my intentions for the workweek?” Glomb said.
  • Learn how to mitigate interruptions. “Interruptions can be problematic because they take your attention away, and it takes time to get your focus back. Think about how to mitigate the negative effects of interruptions on your work,” Glomb said. “If you can pave your day so that you have protected free time from interruptions and times when you are open to being interrupted, kind of like office hours, that may be helpful.” Glomb also suggests trying the “ready-to-resume technique.” When you get interrupted or need to transition to a different task, you take a minute to make a note about where you were on a task. Then you are ready to resume the work exactly where you left off, and you can regain your focus, Glomb said.
  • Reflect on your experiences during the pandemic. “Really think about what you want going forward and how that is going to look different,” Glomb said. “It’s a good time to reflect on that right now. So what were the things in this new environment that worked well? What were the things that were challenging? What were the types of work that, or the pieces of work that were easy to do remotely? What was harder? What parts of work fell away that should stay away?”
  • Be empathetic toward others. “I think it is useful to remember that everyone is having the same struggle at the same time,” Landers said. “You’re going to see people at work that appear well-adjusted and seem to be doing fine on the outside but are probably struggling just as much as everybody else’s on the inside.”

Tips for employers

  • Be open to change. “As people start to return to the workplace, managers will continue to learn and modify their management styles,” Glomb said. “They still have to be focused on the work, tasks and the people. How they do that might look different.”
  • Be intentional about why you’re making modality decisions. “I think that organizations should be figuring out what’s working and being very intentional as they return to their workspace,” Glomb said. “Really thinking about what is the work that needs to be done, where does it need to be done, and whether it can be done independently or is interdependent?”
  • Create flexible spaces and flexible timing for employees. “One concept that I have encouraged people to think about is flexible work. Flexible work can mean two things. Flex space, where we work, and flex times, what time do we work?” Glomb said.
  • Don’t make extreme decisions while in a temporary situation. “I would encourage organizations to not make extreme decisions to not make permanent decisions in kind of a temporary situation. We’re still figuring some things out. Make the decisions with the information you have, but also realize that you’re going to have to make some tweaks along the way,” Glomb said. “Try not to put things in place that are permanent solutions during this period of flux. There are going to be a lot of changes, so we have to remain nimble and adaptable.”
  • Provide flexibility and predictability for employees. “The other idea that I like, and I think we should communicate to managers, is this idea of we need the flexibility, but we also need predictability,” Glomb said. “The idea is how do managers or how do teams work to make things somewhat predictable but also flexible.”
  • Create team operating principles to share expectations and basic preferences. “Teams should have shared agreements about how they’ll work together as a team. Things they might discuss could be how they make decisions, what their expectations are about working remotely, and how they’re going to work together,” Glomb said.