Minnesota's largest state agency, the Department of Human Services, continues to let many of its employees work from home more than three years after the COVID-19 pandemic began.

The state Department of Education recently moved its main office from Roseville to a smaller building in northeast Minneapolis.

And the Department of Revenue has closed seven regional offices in greater Minnesota over the past two years, shifting about 130 affected employees to remote work.

Much of Minnesota's government workforce hasn't fully returned to the office and state agency leaders say they aren't planning to order employees back any time soon. Instead, agencies are looking to consolidate space and move into smaller buildings in what appears to be a lasting shift toward hybrid work.

"This is a whole culture shift that I would be very shocked to see reversed in the future," said Megan Dayton, president of the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees (MAPE), which represents 16,500 state government workers. "If the state of Minnesota is strategically deciding to reduce its footprint, I don't see them large-scale just calling people back to the workplaces arbitrarily."

The state will spend $20 million in the coming years toward creating what some officials are calling the "workplace of the future."

But as more private-sector companies ask their employees to return to the office, some business leaders say the state should follow suit. Bringing more state workers back to their St. Paul offices could give nearby businesses a much-needed boost, they said.

"Frankly, it's a little disappointing to see how much the state has been lagging behind the private sector," said Joe Spencer, president of the St. Paul Downtown Alliance.

State agencies have their own particular needs and some of them have more employees working in person than others. Think correctional officers who must be on site in state prisons, or Department of Natural Resources employees who do field work.

In jobs where remote work is possible, though, employees across the government enterprise continue to embrace the flexibility. A survey of nearly 5,000 state employees last year found that 82% said they prefer to be in the office one day a week or less.

Several agency leaders said they're OK with giving employees the flexibility, especially in a tight labor market.

"Offering people the ability to do remote work is a competitive advantage to be able to hire people," state Department of Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead said, adding that she expects the DHS will downsize its office in the coming years.

"Some of it depends on when leases expire," Harpstead said.

Several Minnesota state buildings that each exceed 50,000 square feet in size have leases that will expire in the coming years, according to a strategic facilities plan created for the state last November.

The plan offers a glimpse at what future state government offices might look like.

It recommends that agencies adopt a shared workspace model in which people who primarily work from the office would have their own workstations while those who come in less frequently would share desks.

The so-called workplace of the future should also include spaces designed for collaborative group work, the plan recommends, since many employees may come in for that purpose.

"We do expect there's going to be less space needed," said Wayne Waslaski, an assistant commissioner at the Minnesota Department of Administration. "We expect there to continue to be reductions and consolidation."

The administration department has consolidated enough space in its own building that members of the state House of Representatives will also be able to work there while their offices are renovated, Waslaski said.

Administration department leaders have asked state agencies to complete an initial evaluation of their workspace needs by this month, Waslaski said.

Tarek Tomes, commissioner of Minnesota IT Services, said he believes state government workers haven't skipped a beat in the era of remote and hybrid work. With the help of high-speed internet and modern videoconferencing tools, they can accomplish many tasks that were once only achievable in person, he said.

Minnesota IT Services, the state's information technology agency, is preparing to move into a smaller office space on the State Capitol complex this spring, Tomes said. As state agencies shuffle into new and shared offices, he said there likely will be greater opportunities for collaboration.

"I think we're going to see public-sector workers from different agencies sit in the same place," Tomes said. "I think it's going to really open up some collaborative conversations that are really going to be beneficial."

Economic concerns

Business leaders in St. Paul are concerned about the state's seemingly long-term embrace of telework.

B Kyle, president and CEO of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, said she thinks having more employees downtown would provide both economic and public safety benefits.

"So many of our downtown businesses have suffered and many have closed — a return of our state employees would be a significant and much needed boost," Kyle said in a statement.

Spencer from the St. Paul Downtown Alliance said he wishes the state would require employees to come in to the office two to three days per week. That could help the local economy and improve productivity, he said, suggesting that he doesn't think workers are as productive from home as they are in the office.

"I'm hopeful that the state, as it goes through this process, they'll see that in their analysis," Spencer said.

Dayton, of MAPE, countered that giving employees the autonomy to work where they want fosters productivity and job satisfaction. It also will help the state recruit top talent and save money on commercial real estate, she said.

A senior demographer at the State Demographic Center, Dayton said that telework benefits rural economies. Instead of driving to St. Paul and spending money at businesses close to the office, remote workers can put that money into their own communities, she said.

"This strengthens those local economies and encourages growth and sustainability," Dayton said.

Ultimately, Dayton said, work flexibility is what today's employees want.

"We need to be adaptable and ready to accommodate to what potential employees and current employees need," she said.

Read the state's strategic facilities plan:

(Can't see the document? Click here.)