Solution Design Group (SDG) has worked hard to keep its recipe for employee engagement varied even as it moved online when COVID-19 moved into Minnesota.

Since most business moved to telecommuting in March, the Golden Valley software company has hosted virtual book clubs, learning presentations, poker night and whiskey tasting to maintain the fun.

The 189-employee firm uses computer tools like Slack to hold employee trivia contests, share family coloring pages and games to "uplift each other," said SDG marketing manager Alex Haider.

"It is hard being away from each other — but doughnut drops [on porches] and virtual lunches have certainly helped," she said. "Team SDG is excited to get back to seeing each other in person, but we feel comforted by each other when we cannot. We are proud of how the SDG community has pivoted."

Like many other companies, SDG, which ranked No. 3 on the Star Tribune's list of midsize Top Workplaces, feels that reaching out to employees remains a top value made harder by the lack of in-person interaction. The stay-at-home orders ended the water fountain chats, conversations over coffee and social events that normally inject the fun into how we earn a living.

Despite the shift, some midsize Minnesota companies — such as Glacial Ridge Health System (1), homebuilder and mortgage firm Tradition Companies (2), Kraus-Anderson (18) and Panda Restaurant Group (4) were notable for their creativity and for designing workplaces that breathed levity into otherwise solemn times.

Creating fun and employee experiences matters to SDG, Haider said. For example, the employee-owned business has three "employee cabins" in Brainerd where workers chosen by lottery can stay and unwind.

"We are very focused on what is best for our employees and that means adding an element of fun and ­adding things to their life outside of work," Haider said.

The firm with $34 million in sales epitomizes the lengths some employers will go to to keep the work family charged and happy.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) said they see more employers hosting Zoom meetings in costume, designating a "Wear your favorite concert T-shirt" day and giving staff prizes for the best Zoom virtual backdrop.

"Right now, with so much illness, violence and pain, it's even more difficult to focus on 'fun,'" said SHRM Knowledge Center manager Liz Petersen. "During the pandemic, employers will need to be a little more creative in their engagement and team building activities to accommodate remote workers and social distancing. Keep your team sharing and connecting on a personal level."

Kraus-Anderson Construction boasts a "Buzz Squad" of workers who raise honeybees and a pollinator garden on its downtown Minneapolis rooftop.

In 2018, it also opened a garden patio on the fifth floor so workers could do yoga and pollinate fun. The 20-member Buzz Squad won a blue ribbon at the State Fair last year for its honey. The company sells the honey for charity and teaches other businesses downtown how to raise honeybees on roofs.

"Our people get super excited about the bees," said human resource director Diane Toll.

Project coordinator and head beekeeper Brendan Ward still chuckles when he talks about the time two years ago when Kraus moved its cranes from the hotel it was building next door just so Ward could lift giant flower planters up to the new rooftop bee garden.

"I love Kraus-Anderson," Ward said. The company helps workers know there's more to the job "than just having a hammer in your hand or sitting at a desk."

Deemed "essential," Kraus-Anderson is still building and renovating during the pandemic — projects such as the Edina Community Center and Valley View Middle School. But with job site social distancing and at-home workers, it also relies on Zoom happy hours and company executives who phone every home worker.

The pandemic "does really present some challenges to keep that [fun] kind of culture going," said Kraus-Anderson Construction President Al Gerhardt. "We are a group that believes in handshakes and hugs and having fun. Now that you can't have the close contact any longer [you have to] get innovative" and adopt technology to keep those workers virtually connected.

It's also important to continue work in the community, Toll said.

Kraus-Anderson is holding toiletry drives for those affected by the riots that followed the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd by police. Workers will don masks and resume feeding people who are homeless at the nearby House of Charity and jam to music while packing food for overseas relief missions.

"We give back to the communities. It's an important feature of what we do. It's one of the reasons why I have stayed here as long as I have," said Toll, who has worked for the company for 22 years.

Tradition Companies also held a supply drive for those in need after the riots and looting in late May and early June. The company set up teams, bought $3,000 worth of toiletries and asked 330 employees from its various Minnesota offices to donate even more.

This month, workers donated a semi-truck worth of supplies.

"It was a pretty special moment when I saw everyone pulling up with supplies," said Tradition Mortgage President Erik Hendrikson, who drove the truck to the donation site in Minneapolis.

Since the stay-at-home orders, the homebuilding firm has energized telecommuting team members with lighthearted virtual "state of the union" addresses and video montages featuring employees' home offices, pets and best COVID-19 song playlists featuring 1980s favorites.

"We are trying to do our best," Hendrickson said. "A big concern is trying to keep people's sense of a common bond while a big chunk of our staff is working from home. It's been a little bit challenging, but man, we have been able to get a lot of fun things done."

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725