Whenever Jeffrey Larson Keller began to feel stressed and in need of decompression, the Mayo Clinic employee would leave the Ozmun East Building and go for a stroll.

The walk wasn't entirely aimless. Keller would walk in the direction of the Gonda Building until he bumped into a patient. He could always count on that happening. A Mayo employee can't walk Mayo's corridors or side sidewalks without running into a patient who needs help with directions or assistance of some sort.

At a stoplight one time, Keller ran into man from Birmingham, Ala., who had driven nearly 1,000 miles so his wife could undergo surgery at Mayo. "This is the greatest place," the Alabama man told Keller. And as he walked away, he told Keller to share his sentiments and plaudits with other Mayo employees.

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"I mean, they drove past the University of Alabama Birmingham, an outstanding medical center. They drove past St. Louis. They drove past Chicago to come to Rochester, Minnesota," said Keller, who can get teary-eyed when he recalls the interaction. "That was tremendous."

After such encounters, Keller would return to the office, his nerves eased, his focus restored.

Keller told the story recently to illustrate that such near-serendipitous moments almost never happen since he began working from home. Keller sorely misses those interactions. And yet on balance, he considers himself a more effective and productive employee working at home than on Mayo's downtown campus.

"There are fewer distractions here than there are at work," Keller said in an interview on the porch of his 1902 home near Soldiers Field and Mayo's campus.

Jeffrey Larson Keller has worked at Mayo Clinic for more than 30 years and now works from home. Contributed Photo
Jeffrey Larson Keller has worked at Mayo Clinic for more than 30 years and now works from home. Contributed Photo

Keller has worked at Mayo for 34 years, first in research, then in human resources. When Mayo sent thousands of staff employees home to work in March 2020, just as the coronavirus was surging, employees like Keller had to re-invent their work habits. Work is about rituals, and new rituals had to be invented.

And at first, Keller was uncertain he could make the switch.

Over the last year, Keller, 65, discovered powers of adaptability he didn't know he possessed. Less prone to temptation since he was eating at home, Keller ate more healthy and lost 20 pounds.

The 20-minute walk to work had always been part of his morning work ritual. He made a point of maintaining the routine, but now a morning stroll with his dog, "Liberty," and an evening walk after work.

His second-floor office at his Rochester home became less clustered and more spartan. At work in the Ozmun building, Keller often worked alongside stacks of articles that he had read and marked. Keller got rid of them along with his personal library. He didn't need masses of paper anymore because he got used to reading documents on his computer or listening to audio versions of them.

"I had to be flexible," Keller said.

Most importantly, he feels he has become a more effective worker because there are fewer distractions. Today, if Mayo were to reverse itself and require employees to return to campus, Keller would have a simple question: Why?

About 2,900 Mayo staff who previously worked at Rochester's downtown campus now work remotely a majority of time, said Ginger Plumbo, a clinic spokeswoman. Nationwide, the total number of Mayo staff who are working remotely a majority of the time is 10,000. Of the 39,300 Mayo employees based in the Rochester area, approximately 20,000 work at the downtown campus.

For Mike Flores, a directory of technology for SELCO (Southeastern Libraries Cooperatering), the pros and cons of working from home over the last year have been more evenly mixed.

The transition to working from home was smooth, when the pandemic began and businesses and people hunkered down, Flores said. Just before the pandemic struck, SELCO had moved to a Voice Over Internet Protocol phone system, so employees had full access to the phone system from home. They met remotely using Google Meet.

But the downside to working from home was a lack of physical proximity to colleagues, Flores said. It was relatively easy to drop by a fellow employee's office with a quick question when colleagues worked under one roof. It was easier to collaborate with a colleague down the hall. It takes more effort to reach out when everyone is spread out, Flores said.

"I miss kind of seeing my co-workers and being able to pick their brains and collaborate," Flores said.

The Rochester resident also lost his truck, an inadvertent casualty of the pandemic. Because Flores was working from home, he wasn't driving as much. A wire-chewing squirrel took up residence in the truck and effectively totaled it. Flores bought a new vehicle. Since Flores and his wife haven't been on a vacation in the last year, he had extra money to spend on a new vehicle.

But the biggest challenge from working at home was how the days "kind of blurred together," Flores said. With the intermingling of work and home, the distinction between them disappeared.

Michael Flores, director of technology with Selco, works at his home office Monday afternoon, July 26, 2021, in Rochester. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)
Michael Flores, director of technology with Selco, works at his home office Monday afternoon, July 26, 2021, in Rochester. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)

Going home at the end day used to mark the end of work. Working from the home, Flores felt that the work day never ended. Prior to the pandemic, Flore's day followed a predictable pattern: Wake up, get ready for work, go to work, drink a cup of coffee, work. During the pandemic, the day started earlier and the stages were jumbled: Get up, log in and work on some things, then get ready for work.

Flores found his unchanging surroundings and scenery numbing and malaise-inducing.

"Before the pandemic, time was the commodity. Time was the fundamental asset that everyone was looking for. With the pandemic, time stopped having meaning. The commodity (that took on more importance) was focus and energy," he said.

SELCO is in the midst of shifting employees back to the office. And Flores looks forward to a return of a communal sense of work that he believes can't be replaced with Zoom meetings.

"As I've joked (to colleagues), I will come back when the coffee comes back," Flores said.

Working from home, Keller likes to joke that he now has a window office. Its westward-facing perspective has given him insights into the rhythms of his neighborhood he wasn't previously aware of. For example, it's noisy on Wednesdays when the garbage and recycling trucks are rumbling through.

It's a good tthing to be aware of during a Zoom meeting. When the mic is unmuted, the growl of a truck going by breaks into an online conversation.

"I have had to learn how to be aware of my surroundings," Keller said.