With vaccinations rising, Twin Cities employers are starting to usher thousands of workers back into the office.
The numbers aren't large yet. And many of those who have called teams back say they are getting ready for their companywide "hybrid work" policies to launch in January.
With COVID-19 infections still on the rise, plans could change. But for now, Best Buy and U.S. Bank are among those enacting their back-to-office plans.
Graco, Ameriprise and Abbott Laboratories were ahead of most other companies, bringing workers back, starting in the summer.
Medical-device maker Abbott Laboratories recalled its Little Canada employees in July and has since been testing staffers weekly for the virus.
This summer, Ameriprise let many of its 5,000 headquarters workers back into its downtown Minneapolis space, while continuing to support virtual interfaces with customers. Now, most employees work a hybrid schedule, with three days in the office.
"It's great to have people back in the office more in person again, as we focus on finishing the year strong," Ameriprise CEO Jim Cracchiolo recently told analysts about his decision to restart in-person business dealings.
Graco, the Minneapolis-based maker of industrial pumps and sprayers with 1,500 Minnesota employees, called office workers back to headquarters June 15, before the delta variant postponed many companies' plans for a July return.
"No remote. No hybrid," said David Ahlers, Graco's chief human resources officer. Office workers had worked from home starting in March 2020, but factory workers never had that option.
The difference caused animosity, Ahlers said.
So after 13 months of dual work rules on one job site, Graco managers killed the remote option.
"We believe firmly that we are better together," Ahlers said. "That has been our mantra. We are faster, more innovative, more creative and build culture ... when we are together."
Without a hybrid work option, Graco's turnover rate shot from 3 to 5% a year to about 7 or 8%, but Ahlers said the company has backfilled the jobs.
Each month, more Minnesotans trickle back into pre-pandemic work modes.
On Monday, several hundred of Ernst & Young's 800 Minneapolis workers showed up for their first day inside the accounting firm's 30,000-square-foot space in the newly remodeled Dayton's Project building on Nicollet Mall.
"It feels so exciting" to have them back, said Mike O'Leary, Minneapolis general partner for Ernst & Young (EY). "While we have adapted really well to a flexible, virtual model, I think the mentoring and the relationship aspect of seeing each other in person is still a great feeling to get back."
On any given day, however, only a sliver of the accountants and financial advisers will be on-site at one time. The new office fits 450 people.
"We have adapted, [so] we will continue to have a really flexible workforce even after the pandemic eases," O'Leary said.
Every desk in the new space is considered "flex space" and is up for grabs on a first-come basis. Hierarchy no longer matters, he said.
Given the uncertainty of infections, many employers are trying to stay flexible even as they look to 2022.
Target told its office workers they won't have to return on site for the rest of this year. "And there will not be one date where we will be requiring everyone on site," said Target spokeswoman Jacqueline DeBuse.
The company, the largest employer in downtown Minneapolis, stresses "gradual" in its plans, she said.
In the spring, Target embraced hybrid work options permanently and in doing so gave up nearly 1 million square feet of office space in City Center in downtown Minneapolis. Last week, Target told its headquarters workers that they could return to their personal desks, if desired, expanding access from only common areas of the complex.
Target now is creating "flex floors" at its Minneapolis and Brooklyn Park campuses and opening a new Eagan site for workers who want a transitional space to do in-person or virtual work.
"We are really blending in-person, on-site work with virtual work. It really gives the team flexibility," DeBuse said.
In September, Best Buy canceled the remote-only work option for select teams of fully vaccinated employees. The teams returned to the Richfield headquarters to prepare for the holiday season.
This month, hundreds of U.S. Bank managers across the country also started returning to offices to help prepare for Jan. 10, the date by which all workers are expected to be back in U.S. Bank offices.
"Most people will be back in a hybrid fashion in early January," said U.S. Bank spokesman Jeff Shelman. When it comes to deciding which days people will be in the office, "specific days will vary across departments and will be dependent on business needs. We expect that employees and managers will work together to determine what makes the most sense."
Last week, the Minneapolis Downtown Council reported that 39% of downtown workers had resumed work there at least part time, up from 30% in June, said Steve Cramer, the group's CEO.
In St. Paul, roughly 35% of downtown employers have workers back in offices, up from 10% in March, according to the St. Paul Downtown Alliance.
"We're now hearing word of many employers requiring workers back in January," said Downtown Alliance President Joe Spencer.
Still others are remaining flexible on return dates, watching COVID-19 infection rates and the legal brawls that erupted with President Biden's employer vaccine mandates set to take effect Jan 4.
Patrick Skinner, general manager of Wells Fargo Place, which houses 1,500 workers in downtown St. Paul, said the building was expecting about 70% occupancy in January, based on tenant feedback.
"But those estimates are now unclear," Skinner said. "It is a moving target."
Minneapolis-based Thrivent, with a new $125 million headquarters and 900 office workers downtown, said it has no firm plans in place to return to the office.
"The landscape is changing so fluidly that we are continuing to monitor the situation," said spokeswoman Callie Briese.