Minnesota businesses struggle with back-to-work plans

A man with a face mask stands in an office space.
More than a year ago, Brin Glass CEO Bill Sullivan started redoing workspaces for his employees. He wants the people working for him on the job, collaborating in the office, not at home alone.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

What will office space look like after the pandemic is over? Many businesses are grappling with that question right now as they contemplate bringing back employees who’ve worked remotely for more than a year.

Open-plan shared spaces may be the thing of the past and many people might be splitting their time between conventional workspaces and home offices.

More than a year ago, a Twin Cities CEO, Bill Sullivan, started redoing workspaces for his employees. He recently pointed out some of his design changes around his company’s Fridley office.

“Our cubicle space right here, [as] you can see, we’ve extended each cubical with glass partitions on top create a larger barrier,” Sullivan said. 

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He runs Brin Glass Co. and wants the people working for him on the job collaborating in the office, not at home alone.

Sullivan is consulting with other businesses to help them transform work environments, too.  He said the trend toward large open-plan office space has come to a screeching halt.

“That open concept is definitely going to go away,” Sullivan said.

So, what’s going to replace it?

“There’s no script for this right? Here’s what you’re supposed to do. So business leaders are struggling with that,” said Jaime Taets the CEO of Keystone Group International, which consults businesses on efficiency and culture. “Every single business is trying to answer this.”

Taets said figuring out whether and how to bring back workers is a top priority for many businesses right now.

“Nobody knows the right answer for your business or ever for what’s going to happen next,” said Taets. “But we can’t stand in paralysis on this because I think [for[ a lot of business leaders, this is almost like a second wave of like the stress of the pandemic.”

Taets said many companies are surveying their employees about what they want to see in reconfigured work environments, asking what would make them feel safe. She said people seem evenly split on whether they want to continue doing their jobs from home or return to the building.

The architectural and engineering firm HGA has also been engaging employees about what they want moving forward. Sarah Berseth is the office director for the company’s downtown Minneapolis location. Some 300 people work there.

A woman stands in a workspace
“I think one mistake is to think that we have this all figured out. We don’t have this all figured out right now,” said Sarah Berseth of the architectural and engineering firm HGA.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

Berseth said it’s important for leaders and employees to understand the post-pandemic approach to doing business will be a work in progress.

“I think one mistake is to think that we have this all figured out. We don’t have this all figured out right now,” she said.

HGA has been consulting with clients for the past year about pandemic safety protocols.

“Whether it be what the physical space looks like, the size of the offices, the layout of the space or the engineering systems,” Berseth said. “You have to make decisions regarding both of those in order to have the safest space possible.”

Which includes good ventilation. Berseth, who’s a mechanical engineer, said it’s never been so important to bring as much fresh air into buildings as possible and to efficiently filter it as it circulates inside. She predicted many employers will allow workers to clock in both at the office and at home. She thinks shared spaces — often called hotel offices or hoteling desks — will become much more popular.

“That provides us with that flexibility so that people, if they need to come to the office and they need that heads down space for maybe an hour or two, they check out a work station that’s available to multiple individuals,” Berseth said.

Back at Brin Glass Co., Sullivan said he thinks he’ll be busier helping companies upgrade their workspaces as they get closer to bringing people back.

“I really expected to see more reconfiguration of the office space downtown. That hasn’t happened yet,” Sullivan said. “I know the employers keep pushing back the return to work date for their employees, and from what we’re hearing most employers are looking at September or later now.”

Labor Day marks the end of summer. For many this year, it could also mark the beginning of a new way to work.