Having nearly 1,900 employees switch to working from home probably got done faster amid a global pandemic than it would have otherwise, according to the leader of Golden Valley-based Allianz Life.

"We somewhat joked that if we had planned to do this it would have been a multi-month or multiyear process," said CEO Walter White. "But being sort of forced to move quickly was helpful in this case."

Moving quickly was the challenge that Allianz and other large employers on the Star Tribune's Top Workplaces list faced in the sudden rush to relocate thousands of employees as Minnesota's stay-at-home order took effect in March.

On the technology front, companies scrambled to beef up corporate networks for increased traffic, and to make sure employees had laptops or other devices and internet connections to work from home.

Videoconferencing replaced meetings. CEOs began regular video or voice mail updates or did them more often.

For all that changed as work-from-home took hold, employees still got their work done, leaders of several large Top Workplaces said. They attributed that success to workplace cultures — developed long before the pandemic — that promote employee engagement.

Some leaders can't wait to get everyone back in the office. For others, positive results from this work-at-home experience have them considering it as part of a more flexible workplace policy in the future.

Long-term balance

Allianz Life got 98% of its employees equipped and connected to work from home in less than a week, said White, one of the few people still working on campus. Benchmarks for service levels remain on pace with employees working from home, and they're using technology effectively to overcome distance, communicate and do their work, White said.

"When you're not directly overseeing things you have to count on people working together and coming together, and we've seen that," White said. "That goes back to employee engagement. They really care about continuing to deliver on behalf of our customers."

A long-term solution likely will involve a balance. A remote working option, with some office time, could attract a broader range of talent from outstate or in another state or country, White said.

"I like the on-campus feel but I recognize for many that the flexibility they've now experienced, they're going to want to maintain that," White said. "We were able to pull it off quickly, which opens our minds to doing other things quickly."

Where interaction is key

At Mortenson, adapting to videoconferences has been painless, but "it's a Band-Aid compared to the in-person interaction that we're used to," said Dan Johnson, CEO of the development and construction company based in Golden Valley.

Mortenson is fortunate that the bulk of its business is spread out across hundreds of construction sites around the country, Johnson said. Mortenson gives mobile devices to many of its 4,500 craft team members, the ones building the projects.

Office employees in roles like information technology services, finance and accounting might be given continued work-from-home flexibility in the future, Johnson said. He and other leaders might travel less as team members on job sites send drone and cellphone video project updates.

Something gets lost, however, when the 2,500 non-craft team members — 75% of whom usually work at job sites, 25% in offices — meet through formal video conferences instead of bumping into each other at the office, Johnson said.

"You can keep the business running that way but it's very hard to innovate and move the business forward," Johnson said. "Our company culture is based on family values and it's hard to be a family when you only see your other family members by video conference. This whole experience is something we're enduring, but we definitely don't see it as our future moving forward."

Preparation helped

Investment in technology and communications, plus a work-from-home pilot project this year, prepared Affinity Plus Federal Credit Union to quickly move 550 employees from 30 branches to home offices, CEO Dave Larson said. That included buying and setting up computers and other tech for everyone working from home.

A rapid increase in videoconferencing — from 35 sessions the month before the stay-at-home order to 1,100 the month after — helped offset the absence of staff meetings, branch visits and other traditional "touch points" with employees, Larson said. Switching from mostly written communication to weekly video updates last year also served as good preparation for maintaining communication.

Larson was cautious about the pilot, which involved 60 to 70 employees working at home once a week. However, he says, call center performance improved even as employees answered customer calls at home, and month-end accounting got done much more quickly.

"We've told our employees that work-from-home will continue," Larson said. "We believe the organization is running more effectively, and our metrics tell us that and we see the engagement level. If we see some sort of change, we're going to reevaluate that. But if something is working, is going in the right direction, I'm a believer in 'Let's keep doing this.'"

Continuing to engage

With laptops in short supply in March, UCare sent some of its 1,000 employees home with their desktop computers. But the Minneapolis-based health care nonprofit didn't leave it at that, said Hilary Marden-Resnik, UCare's senior vice president and administrative officer.

The human resources team quickly created webinars on best practices for working at home, Marden-Resnik said. They addressed issues including using technology, dealing with distractions and, for leaders, managing a remote workforce. The live webinars were offered several times so people could ask questions.

"It wasn't just about getting people home but making sure we continue to engage with employees and interact with employees and be transparent with employees, so we put all of our communications at the forefront of our planning efforts," Marden-Resnik said.

All-employee meetings, which used to occur roughly every quarter, now take place monthly by video conference, Marden-Resnik said, and CEO Mark Traynor has launched a weekly video update.

'We can do this'

On top of equipping 150 of its employees to work from home — over the course of two days — Minnesota Adult & Teen Challenge had to stage virtual fundraisers to replace its annual in-person gala. But the results broke records for the Minneapolis-based nonprofit, which operates faith-based residential treatment and short-term recovery programs for chemical addiction.

The planning that went into making the effort a success exemplifies the exponential increase in communication, by phone and video, and work-from-home productivity throughout the organization, said Dave Irvin, vice president of human resources and administration.

During the pandemic, the organization, which has 15 locations, has opened a community outpatient center in Crystal, offering group meetings and individual counseling through telehealth instead of in-person services as planned, Irvin said.

This was in addition to operating residential treatment facilities, which were deemed essential services, Irvin said. The residential programs employ 600 people, with temperature checks and health screenings as employees enter buildings, and masks and social distancing used inside.

"We still believe there's value in being together, especially since we're a faith-based ministry," Irvin said. "I think we will have a much greater opportunity for employees to work from home perhaps on a measured basis where they're in the office maybe three days a week. Productivity has not fallen off and there's a good assurance that we've got the right workforce and we can do this."

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Lake Elmo. His e-mail is todd_nelson@mac.com.