The skyways in downtown Minneapolis could be buzzing again with office workers by the fall.
Wells Fargo, the third-largest employer downtown with about 7,000 employees, said this week that it expects workers to begin returning after Labor Day. Executives said they have been encouraged by the increase in vaccine availability and are planning for a "return to a more normal operating model" starting Sept. 6.
The announcement comes a month after the largest employer downtown, Target Corp., with 8,500 employees, pushed back its return to the office to the fall.
However, some companies are planning for workers to start trickling back into offices this summer. Thrivent, for example, has said it will have a phased approach to its return starting in July, though some employees are expected to continue working remotely at least part of the time.
U.S. Bancorp, which has about 5,000 employees downtown, has not committed to a firm timeline. But executives have said they don't expect any significant return before the summer and will give employees at least 30 days notice.
Downtown Minneapolis had about 218,000 daily workers before the onset of the pandemic. These days, about 15% of those workers have been going into the office, said Steve Cramer, president of the Minneapolis Downtown Council.
Based on conversations with executives at dozens of downtown companies, Cramer is expecting office activity to pick up this summer. But initially, it will be more on a voluntary basis.
"It's going to be fueled a lot by companies saying to their employees who want to come back to work, 'OK, now you can. We're ready for you,' " he said.
That will be followed by more formal return-to-work plans going into effect this fall, when he expects to see a more significant bounce back.
"It's going to feel a lot more like normal," he said of the post-Labor Day time frame, adding that he hopes that will encourage some skyway eateries and other businesses to reopen, too, while acknowledging some will not come back.
He cautioned that downtown's base of workers won't go back to the same level as before, particularly with more companies offering employees a hybrid approach of combining remote work and coming to the office perhaps a couple of days a week.
Target is among those who have said that workers will be able to split their time between the office and working from home so the company won't need as much real estate. That's why it has decided to exit the City Center, reducing its downtown office space by a third.
Portico Benefit Services, a benefits manager, is also downsizing its offices, and will relocate several hundred workers from downtown Minneapolis to Edina.
In a memo to employees on Tuesday, Wells Fargo executives said they are still working to figure out details such as what a "more normal model" will look like. But they said they will not take a one-size-fits-all approach. At the same time, they said they believe employees benefit by being around one another.
"Being physically together can be more inclusive and drive broader participation," they wrote. "Being pulled into meetings, learning from seeing how others work, and the often unplanned, casual interactions that occur when people see each other in the workplace can be really important."
They added that they also realize that flexibility is important and has made some of them more productive.
"We also understand that the boundary between personal time and work time has been blurred — often to the detriment of our personal well-being," they wrote. "This is not a Wells Fargo-specific issue, but one we want to ensure does not continue."
San Francisco-based Wells Fargo has a large presence in Minnesota, where it employs about 18,000 statewide. Outside of downtown Minneapolis, it also has a campus just south of downtown as well as large offices in Shoreview and St. Louis Park.
Across the entire company, about 200,000 Wells Fargo employees have been working remotely during the pandemic, while about 60,000 employees have been working on company property, chiefly in branches.
Executives said they hoped that by giving notice now of a return in September, employees will have time to plan for summer and the start of the next school year.
They added that the timeline could change based on COVID-19 case and vaccination rates.