Erin Erickson, MA 16 articles

For over 40 years, Gary Johnson, President of MSP Communications, remembers his company’s bustling downtown Minneapolis office space.

As publishers of Mpls St. Paul and Twin Cities Business magazines and content marketing experts through their agency MSPC, Johnson defines their employee culture as driven by a reader-first, journalistic mentality.“It was always teeming with our creative content writers collaborating on what they do best – words and ideas,” he recalls. “We were always poring over proofs and storyboards, trying to constantly innovate.”

“We’ve all worked together for a long time, and while we have new employees, it doesn’t take long for them to become part of the MSP family,” adds Johnson. “We’re a tight-knit bunch – we get along well and we like to socialize.”

Innovation, talent, purpose, and experience are the ingredients that make MSP Communications employees want to get up in the morning and come to work every day, according to Johnson.

Pandemic changes business overnight

Yet when COVID-19 emptied out their Minneapolis office in mid-March 2020, getting up in the morning and coming to work took on new meaning.

“The pandemic completely changed our business,” says Johnson. “We became a virtual company overnight.”

Johnson and the executive leadership team made some difficult decisions early on to determine what kind of company they wanted to be in the face of COVID. They needed to plan for all of the challenges that were to come. They quickly formed a COVID task force to determine what their pandemic future looked like.

Throughout the spring and summer of 2020, their 130+ employees continued to work remotely to ensure everyone’s safety.

How to stay connected when you’re apart

“We've found we're quite productive working from home,” says Johnson. “It isn’t necessarily our productivity or efficiencies that are hindered at any level. It’s the emotional well-being of our staff. Our employees are living with a lot of stress because COVID is keeping their kids out of school. We also can’t socialize and collaborate on proofs and print needs in the same way. We’ve been used to being around each other for years and years. It’s been a struggle from those perspectives.”

The team brainstormed on how to solve for some of these challenges, while taking advantage of the fact that they were working well remotely.

What to do when office space becomes too big?

“We had this large office space that we were not using and it wasn’t conducive to physical distancing constraints,” says Johnson. “By the summer it became clear that the pandemic would continue for an indefinite time. We made the tough decision to downsize our office space, and move to a new building in the North Loop where we could create a work space that met the Minnesota Department of Health’s (MDH) pandemic guidelines. Our intention long-term is to have our staff work remotely, but use this new location as a base camp for collaboration and print needs.”

The task force gathered information from MDH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and started to ask other similar organizations what their COVID business plans looked like.

A COVID playbook to keep people safe and feeling secure

“We accessed a lot of articles and information to put our plan together,” said Johnson. “Yet we really wanted our staff to feel like we did everything we could to protect them. And the question about emotional health remained - how can we boost our culture and keep everybody’s spirits up, especially as we move into the fall and winter months?”

That led the task force to seek expert validation of their office guidelines and a strategy recommendation for emotional health support from an external partner in August 2020.

Collaborative space, new MSP Communications office
MSP Communications conference room

Deborah Hopp, Senior Vice President of MSP Communications, is a HealthPartners board member. She heard about HealthPartners’ work to help employers through the pandemic and inquired to see if they could provide support to MSP Communications.

“We had a basic plan in place, but we wanted medical expertise to take it to the next level to ensure the safe return of our employees,” says Hopp. “Because HealthPartners has a track record of safely getting employers back to work since the start of the pandemic, we were confident that they could help us.”

The task force wanted a COVID playbook that contained policy guidelines, proper workspace and meeting room set-up, contact tracing, and testing recommendations. Because of their concern for their employees’ mental health, ideas for how to cope with change, isolation, working from home, and various stresses, were also welcome.

The task force met several times with Dr. Paul Anderson, Regional Medical Director for Occupational Medicine and Work Site Health Clinics at HealthPartners, to get medical guidance on how to properly set-up the new space. Dawn Mansergh, Manager, Worksite Health Client Accounts, worked with Dr. Anderson and the task force to design a COVID business plan to meet the organization’s specifications and the necessary safety protocols. She also put together a range of emotional health resources from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the CDC, the UnLonely project, and other Employee Assistance Program (EAP) information.

Taking a structured approach to pandemic workspace planning

“We helped MSP Communications take a structured approach to understanding the level of exposures in their workplace,” says Dr. Anderson. “We followed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) COVID planning document, which outlines the hierarchy of controls for safe workplace practices.”

The hierarchy of controls for COVID outbreaks is an overall framework of infection prevention strategies. It includes reducing virus transmission in the workspace through pre-screening, having people stay home when sick, and contact tracing. Another level involves engineering controls, such as creating physical barriers in the workspace and allowing for proper ventilation through the building’s HVAC system. Finally, administrative controls help outline policies to address physical distancing, staggered shifts, hygiene, meeting sizes and masking.

“The COVID preparedness plan, the workspace set-up guidance and additional mental health information HealthPartners gathered for us, covered more than we could have possibly put together ourselves,” says Johnson.

“It’s one message of continuity to all employees, which helps provide peace of mind. It makes it clear that we are doing all that we can. It truly shows we care, and we really do.”

For more information about HealthPartners wide range of Back To Business solution to help employers operate safely through the pandemic, fill out the form here.

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