Affinity Plus leaders were firm believers in in-person work when, in January 2020, employee interest prompted a pilot allowing one team to work remotely one day a week.

"Basically, they had to really prove themselves in order to work that one day a week remotely," said Chief Talent Officer Julie Cosgrove. "We really believed in in-person work; we believed it drove connection and relationship and performance and outcome."

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the St. Paul-based bank, like employers across the globe, had no choice but to send workers home.

Fast forward to today, and Affinity, ranked fifth on the Star Tribune Top Workplaces large company list, has employees in 19 states while before, all but two members of its 600-person staff lived in Minnesota. Companywide, most employees are "virtual-first," working nearly all their hours outside of offices, Cosgrove said.

"Had the pandemic never happened, I don't know that we would be working in this way," she said. "In January of 2020, we dipped our pinky toe in the water of remote work, and that's all we were willing to do. Having the pandemic as the platform for change allowed us to test drive things that we would have never done with that same speed or that same drive or that same volume of people."

Though the pandemic is in the rearview mirror and the "Great Resignation" has subsided, the labor market remains tight, and companies still struggle to attract qualified applicants. To find and keep the right people, employers have settled into a new world where remote work is the norm. A third of Minnesota workers worked at least partially from home in 2023, a higher proportion than surrounding states and the U.S. as a whole, according to a Minneapolis Fed analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.

But flexibility is about more than just whether employees come into the office, and benefits that were practically unheard of four years ago — from flexible hours to a four-day work week — are increasingly part of the package.

Twin Cities-based Walser Automotive Group this year condensed its five-day work week into four longer days. Affinity shifted its fully paid MBA program at Metropolitan State University from in-person to virtual when the pandemic began, allowing more employees to participate. American Solutions for Business (ASB) is updating its Glenwood, Minn., offices with both permanent and part-time workspaces based on individual needs.

The renovations aren't tied to a return-to-office mandate, said Taylor Borst, senior director of marketing and vendor relations for ASB, which ranked fourth on the large business list. Rather, the physical changes are a reflection of work-life balance the employee-owned company prioritized even before the pandemic, and that has only become more of a focus in the years since.

"The flexibility is so nice and something that I didn't even expect to have coming out of college," said Kate Murray, a communications and public relations specialist who joined ASB earlier this year. "But it's that time when I am at my desk and working, getting things done — it makes it so much more enjoyable when I know that there is flexibility if I need it, rather than going into an office from 8 to 5, five days a week, and being burnt out that way."

Economic stressors including the rising cost of living and elevated inflation are prompting many U.S. workers to stay in their jobs, according to recent survey data from WTW, formerly Willis Towers Watson. The 2024 Global Benefits Attitudes Survey, conducted among 10,000 private sector workers from January to March, found 72% of respondents are opting to stay with their current employers. In 2022, 53% of respondents were looking to leave.

In both 2022 and 2024, respondents cited flexible work arrangements among the top reasons for staying in their jobs, along with pay, job security and health benefits.

Also a priority, according to Minnesota companies: employee connection to their workplace — and each other.

Minnetonka-based Channel, fifth on the Top Workplaces midsize company list, has a post-COVID policy of four remote work days a month, said human resources manager Hannah Anderson, but "if you ask the majority of [employees], they're probably in office five days a week because they want to."

Gen Z workers in particular, she said, are hungry for in-person interactions after remote college and internship experiences during the pandemic.

"We had a lot of comments, when people came into the office for the final round of interviews, just of the energy that they felt around the office," Anderson said. "And so I think that's a huge part of our culture and of that draw for that generation."

At ASB, the ongoing office renovations include new conference rooms and communal gathering spaces, Borst said. Affinity Plus has rolled out paid leave for elder care, as well as paid compassionate leave employees can use after the loss of a family member, friend or pet, Cosgrove said.

The credit union also provides a paid day when employees can gather with their friends and family at a spot away from work — an apple orchard and Valleyfair have been recent destinations, she said.

"You can stay for 15 minutes; you can stay for eight hours," Cosgrove said. "There's no work component — there's really feeding into that need for employees to have that connection with their colleagues, but sometimes not in the formal office way, more in that connected, casual way."