Behind Smucker’s incredibly popular core-weeks RTO plan
J. M. Smucker Co is in a class of its own when it comes to its return-to-office plan, which isn’t much of a return at all.
Originally reported by The Wall Street Journal’s Chip Cutter, Smucker’s, which is based in rural Orrville, Ohio, doesn’t require employees to come into the office any more than six days per month. More concretely, it delineated 22 “core weeks” a year, decided on a year in advance. The plan mostly shakes out to two core weeks per month, save for July and December, which both only have one core week to allow for holiday travel.
The plan was executed by Jill Penrose, who took the Chief People and Administrative Officer role at the ubiquitous jelly giant in November 2019 after nearly two decades with the firm. Twenty-two weeks a year makes sense, and it’s considerably more generous than what most other companies have offered. But, in an interview with Fortune, she explained that the ethos of the plan is purpose, not keeping score.
“We didn’t start with how many days [are required in-person], or with rules and requirements,” Penrose said. “We started with what we want to accomplish: developing people and capabilities and maintaining a vibrant culture.”
That’s been the party line for many companies, who have mostly settled on mandating a handful of days per week, every week, in the office. The idea, many leaders insisted, is to bolster culture, mentorship, and idea generation that can only happen face-to-face. That didn’t work for Penrose, nor for the employees of the company with its headquarters in a tiny town outside Akron.
Emerging from the pandemic, workers greatly reimagined their personal and professional lives, Penrose said, “and we needed a solution that responded to that.” The solution—organized hybrid—felt like “a very natural way to respond,” and it goes part and parcel with leadership training that focuses on “the whole person, with their own priorities and interests.”
Presence, purpose, and peanut butter
Penrose often returns to a common refrain: presence and purpose. That’s the hallmark of her plan. As she and her team drew it up, they interviewed a dozen employees about their priorities and learned how freeing it was for them to be able to collect their kids off the bus at 3 p.m. or care for aging family members throughout the day.
Then there were the less urgent things that simply enriched lives: With flexible hours, workers could reconnect with their fitness and health, read more, get more rest, “do the things they’re deeply passionate about—that mattered a lot.”
On its face, Smucker’s is hybrid, but its flexibility stems from an understanding that “people have needs in their lives aside from the 9-to-5 parameters,” Penrose said, stressing the importance of in-person time for collaboration.
The fine print: Smucker’s asks workers to be in the office 25% to 50% of the time, over time. (The “spirit” of that “over time” estimate, she said, means 25% to 50% in-person presence over the course of a year.)
But where did that six-days-per-month figure come from? “If you take our 25% to 50% requirement, and apply the 25%, that comes out to six days per month, but we don’t communicate it that way, and we ask employees not to,” Penrose said. “We’re not keeping score and hope they aren’t either.”
Companies overly concerned with badging—presenteeism—have lost the foundational spirit of purpose with presence, Penrose said. Even still, she is wont to criticize any other company’s model. “They have their reasons,” she said. “We just want to show what we do, and how it’s a reciprocal relationship. People may need more flex at certain times of the year, or they have certain things in their life that need more time.”
Penrose’s team first communicated its new model with significant lead time, to allow for workers to make plans for their new rhythm. “When we started the process, we used the phrase, ‘let’s just get started.’ We needed to create new habits. There’s no question that people had to make adjustments, but we were respectful in giving them time to plan and make it work.”
As for new hires or workforce entrants who are proven to perform better when in-person most of the time, Penrose said she wouldn’t characterize them as being a separate group, with distinct rules or guidelines. Rather, they make for a strong example of presence with purpose that might call for an individual or team to adjust their practices and come in more often.
At Smucker’s, a whole team coming together to help a new hire learn the ropes counts as a specific, time-sensitive need that must be met, she said, which would call for in-person work. “At the end of a quarter, there can be a lot of work for certain departments,” she explained. “There’s your purpose: Asking you to do this for this reason for a finite period of time.”
“A natural inclination” to follow rules
But operating without hard and fast rules presents a different suite of issues. “People want to meet expectations and do the right thing, so there’s a natural inclination and desire to follow rules,” Penrose said. “But we’re not giving them that; we just give a framework for [in-office attendance] over time, and people were able to implement whatever made sense for their team.”
Smucker’s model has been a resounding success, Penrose said, mostly because they trusted their people to do the right thing, and they rose to the occasion. At its core, work is a relationship of trust, not a list of rules for people to follow, Penrose said. The important thing is to “have as much respect for what people want to do outside of work as we have for what they do inside.”