Sep. 20—MANKATO — As was the case for many offices, last year's sudden move to send many people home to work was a stunner for the Le Sueur County Human Services Department.
"When we started (remote), it was like pulling off the Band-Aid. We were forced to do it," said department head Sue Rynda. "We were considered essential employees but the governor asked that anyone who could work from home should."
While having employees working out of the office was an upheaval of tradition, the county learned that it worked and could help alleviate a space crunch.
While the County Board is still studying if and how to allow ongoing work-from-home schedules for some employees, County Commissioner Steve Rohlfing said he and other commissioners see benefits to it.
"We know people can work from home and be efficient, and the department heads have checks and balances. And you look at brick-and-mortar costs now, do you need as much of that?"
Human Services offices are now in the lower level of the County Government Center, which is the old courthouse.
"We're packed in like sardines," Rynda said of her staff. "We have space issues here."
The county has been looking at remodeling the government center and at the need for more space. Rohlfing and Rynda said having more staff working remotely could save taxpayers money on renovating and expanding offices.
A sea change
The pandemic caused a similar change of thought for a lot of businesses.
"I think locally there's just a lot more flexibility," said Jessica Beyer, president and CEO of Greater Mankato Growth.
"It depends on the industry sector, obviously manufacturing has some different needs. But even there they are looking at office staff (working remotely)."
Beyer said everyone was immersed in intense lessons in remote work because of the pandemic. She said GMG will continue to have more Zoom meetings for its staff while also meeting in person.
But she expects there will be challenges for businesses moving forward, especially for large businesses.
"It's a challenge if you manage hundreds of people. How do you make sure they're productive and you're flexible for them?"
While remote work is becoming much more common, many employees and businesses still find more benefit in being in the office.
Jeff Lang, a principal at CliftonLarsonAllen in Bridge Plaza in downtown Mankato, said they have given approval to a handful of employees who asked to continue working from home, part or full time.
"There are various reasons we think it's important for people to be in the office — client interaction, training, building team culture. It's hard to build a culture when you're not in the office."
While he said the firm understands why working remote fits some employees better, the majority of its 30-40 employees want to be in the office. "They enjoy their teammates, the camaraderie and the sharing of information is important to them."
While most businesses had expected to be fully open to employees who wanted to get back in the office, many are now slowing down on the comeback as the COVID-19 delta variant causes new cases to surge.
"Effective June 1 we've encouraged people to get back in the office, but we haven't mandated it," Lang said. "At this point, like a lot of people, we're waiting to see what's going to happen with the variant."
Driven by employees
More workers are seeking flexible work schedules, whether working remotely part or full time.
That is sometimes causing clashes between employees and managers at some companies who are reluctant to allow working from home. But surveys and news articles suggest expectations of flexibility by employees is trumping any management reluctance. As a Business Insider headline put it: "In the war over work from home, WFH is winning."
In a survey by consultant Grant Thornton of more than 1,500 American workers, 79% said they wanted flexibility and 40% said they would look for another job if they were forced to be at their desks full time. Other surveys are finding similar reluctance by many workers to work full time in offices. In the current climate of worker shortages in virtually every sector across the United States, those workers have more pull as companies work to improve benefits and find ways to attract and keep employees.
Lots of learning
Rynda said Human Services staff and the county have learned a lot, but there are still plenty of things to work through if remote working is to be a permanent fixture moving forward.
"I always say don't let a crisis go by without learning from it."
The first thing was to ensure employees had the technology they needed to work from home and to be comfortable with it.
"I can't say enough good things about our IT department. They had a lot of old computers stored away and were rigging up a lot of things and ensuring employees could get into our system securely," Rynda said.
Online security was a key factor as the department works with a number of clients with a range of sensitive information. She said the county moved to an online records management system a few years ago, which made remote work easier. And all employees were issued a county cellphone so they could communicate with clients without using their personal phones. Employees can access client and state system records without leaving any of the information on a computer in their homes. The department also uses a secure Zoom medical system so employees can meet virtually with clients.
"I applaud our County Board because they supported us pre-pandemic to invest in an electronic document system and convert to laptops for our social workers who are out in the field a lot and just a lot of other technology upgrades."
Rynda said that of their 61 full-time employees, four are interested in working full time from home while 31 are interested in working from home part of the week.