This Company Created a Return-to-Office Plan That Employees Actually Like | Mint

This Company Created a Return-to-Office Plan That Employees Actually Like

The Smucker company store.
The Smucker company store.

Summary

  • J.M. Smucker is ordering workers to be at its Ohio headquarters for 22 ‘core’ weeks. It is a strategy that may resolve the tug of war over how we work.

.M. Smucker’s leaders aren’t worried about their sparsely populated campus, which anchors one end of this town.

At the main entrance stands founder Jerome Monroe Smucker’s 1907 home, with a sweeping front porch and hydrangea bushes overlooking Main Street, its rooms used for company dinners and occasional board meetings.

A turn into the headquarters, on Strawberry Lane, leads to a series of brick-and-glass buildings added as Smucker’s stable of brands—from Jif peanut butter to Folgers coffee and Pup-Peroni dog treats—expanded through acquisitions in recent decades.

One building houses a coffee-tasting space and a mock grocery store where retailers can practice arranging products on shelves. Another contains an employee cafeteria, an indoor gym, running track and a wall that spells “Yum" out of gingham-patterned jam-jar lids.

The amenities, created for hundreds of workers, are barely used on many days.

Smucker has adopted a return-to-office strategy that is unusual among U.S. companies. The company expects its roughly 1,300 Orrville-based corporate workers to be on site as little as six days a month, or about 25% of the time, depending on their roles.

Employees are told to hit that threshold by coming in during 22 “core" weeks a year. Many employees can live anywhere in the U.S. so long as they pay their own way to get to Orrville for core weeks. This has led to a growing group of super-commuters who reside elsewhere but work in Orrville.

The lasting tectonic change from the pandemic is how Americans work—including whether they show up to offices at all. The issue is rattling employers and vexing public officials in cities such as San Francisco, which is struggling to keep its downtown afloat, and New York, where subway ridership remains below its prepandemic weekday average. At major companies, otherwise-compliant employees keep flouting directives to show up, frustrating bosses.

As Labor Day approaches, many companies are again issuing stern memos to workers or handing down new in-person edicts to repopulate spaces this fall. Smucker executives say there is something remarkable about its return-to-office approach: Employees are mostly following it, with limited grumbling. Core weeks also appear to be eking more work out of employees in some circumstances.

“People generally show up" for core weeks, said Mark Smucker, the company’s chief executive and a fifth-generation member of the founding family. He was sitting in a conference room during a recent core week. A few other nearby rooms were also occupied. “They’ve adapted," he said.

The company arrived at its strategy after months of internal debate. As wave after wave of Covid-19 cases delayed a broader office reopening during the pandemic, more employees settled into a rhythm of working at home. Smucker’s chief people officer, Jill Penrose, faced a dilemma: How could she tell corporate employees who successfully did their jobs remotely for years that working at home no longer worked?

Smucker needed to come up with a policy that worked for the business and that could be explained in a way that made sense to staff, Penrose said. “Every company was dealing with employees for two years who had been performing quite well working remotely," she said.

Executives initially expected to require employees back in the office half the time. Like many employers, Smucker leaders considered mandating three specific days in offices each week, such as Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Then, they ruled that out, declaring it too prescriptive.

The company owns its headquarters, and leaders didn’t want to give up in-person work, believing such connections help the company function. “The relationships get built in between meetings, not during meetings," said Mark Smucker, 53, who has been CEO since 2016 and started working at the company as a quality-control intern when he was a teenager. He commutes to the office most days from his home in Akron, about 40 minutes away.

The core-week effort began in January 2022. Initially, some employees ignored it entirely, but after reminders from leaders, offices began filling by May and June of last year. During most core weeks, Smucker’s headquarters is now about 70% to 80% full, Penrose said, above the national average. The company is benefiting in another way: During core weeks, workers log additional hours, scheduling back-to-back meetings and dinners with peers.

In 10 major U.S. cities, offices remain about 50% occupied, a figure that hasn’t budged for months, according to security provider Kastle Systems, which measures employee badge swipes. Some big employers now want staffers back. Remote-work champion Zoom told employees recently it would begin requiring people who live near its offices to work on-site two days a week. Facebook parent Meta Platforms said workers assigned to an office will need to come in three days a week starting in September, as part of a more structured hybrid schedule.

Even so, many leaders across industries say they are convinced that white-collar work will not return entirely to prepandemic habits, even as most Americans now travel, dine out and attend social events as they did before the onset of Covid-19.

“The way we work has changed forever," said Antonio Neri, CEO of the technology giant Hewlett Packard Enterprise, which has adopted a two-day-a-week hybrid schedule for its corporate employees. “There are some lasting, permanent changes."

Sprawling campus

In Orrville, with a population of about 9,000, Smucker is the biggest employer. Locals can spot Smucker employees by the lanyards dangling from their belts.

The front of every Smucker jelly packet still includes “Orrville, Ohio," in small print—a point of pride.

The company got its start about 125 years ago with the idea that families might buy a jar of apple butter, considered at the time a “poor-man’s bread spread," according to a corporate history, instead of making it at home by simmering and stirring apples in a pot for hours at a time.

Jerome Monroe Smucker, a Mennonite farmer and mill owner, founded the company in 1897. He initially sold cider and apple butter from a horse-drawn wagon in Orrville, a transportation and rail hub for nearby farms. He built it into a growing business and lived in the house in the middle of campus until his death in 1948.

The company went public in 1959, and soon after it embraced advertising to boost sales nationally. Lois Wyse, co-founder of a Cleveland advertising agency, in 1962 came up with the phrase, “With a name like Smucker’s, it has to be good," a slogan the company continues to use today.

As the years went on, Smucker expanded and its ambitions grew. The company purchased a small North Dakota manufacturer of frozen peanut butter and jelly crustless sandwiches in 1998, which it turned into a brand called Uncrustables. In 2002, Smucker bought Jif peanut butter from Procter & Gamble, in a deal “any kindergartner could have recommended," as The Wall Street Journal wrote at the time. More acquisitions followed, bringing Folgers coffee and Milk Bone dog treats into the mix.

The deals more than doubled the size of the company, leading Smucker to build more office space on its 130-acre Orrville campus to accommodate additional employees. The company now has roughly 6,000 employees worldwide. Construction in Orrville continues today on a research-and-development facility, where Smucker plans to test new combinations of frozen sandwiches, part of a goal to hit $1 billion in Uncrustables sales by the 2026 fiscal year. Smucker had overall sales of $8.5 billion in the year ended April 30.

Core weeks

On a recent Wednesday afternoon during a core week, the Orrville campus hummed with activity. A line snaked through the cafeteria. A pair of employees sat at an outdoor table overlooking a newly unveiled statue of two former Smucker leaders, Tim and Richard—the father and uncle, respectively, of the current CEO. The company offers free coffee, peanut butter and jelly packets in its office; Uncrustables are available at a discount.

Smucker publishes its core-weeks schedule a year in advance to allow staff and teams to plan. Most take place every other week except for July and December, when Smucker holds only one core week a month to allow for summer vacations and winter holidays. Leaders reserve meetings requiring deep focus for core weeks—say, an Uncrustables strategy session, a training for a customer-service team or a multiday business planning conference.

When the company gathers senior leaders and some of its top-performing employees at the start of the year for a session called “Renewal and Discovery," that is done in person, too. “I don’t think that could be replicated in a virtual or remote sense," Penrose said.

John Nicholas, a Smucker vice president who helps oversee the corporate campus, said he and other managers often try to keep some of their calendar unscheduled during a core week to allow for spontaneous hallway conversations and unplanned chats with colleagues in other departments. With many people on site at once, employees say their days are packed.

“Core weeks are crazy here," said Jarod Shamp, a manager of Smucker’s on-site innovation center.

Some teams have stopped scheduling customer visits during core weeks, preferring instead to bring retailers in when there are fewer demands on employees’ time.

Executives see the policy as an asset in hiring, allowing them to recruit employees who may be uninterested in a role in northeastern Ohio. On a job description for an assistant brand manager at Smucker posted this summer, for example, the position notes that the candidate will be expected “to be on-campus minimally."

“We’re not limited by geography. We’re limited by the fact that we’re going to want you here. You need to have a presence," said Nicholas, who lives nearby and has worked at the company for more than 30 years. “It’s unleashed, I think, the ability to get the best talent."

A small number of salaried employees, many of them food scientists and others who rely on specialized equipment, still come in five days a week, even during non-core weeks.

A manufacturing plant on the campus also employs about 300 people and churns out jams, jellies and ice-cream toppings. Unlike white-collar workers, the production staff do not work a core-week schedule and the plant still runs, at times, 24 hours a day.

Smucker’s human-resources department now sends a form to employees quarterly, asking them to verify what percentage of their time they spent at the office in Orrville and at home, so the company can withhold taxes appropriately. Before the pandemic, the company may not have as easily granted requests for employees based in Orrville to live multiple states away, said Penrose, the head of human resources.

“Now, we say let’s start with yes," she said, before asking a series of questions to determine whether an employee can live remotely and commute to Orrville.

The company hasn’t seen its culture slow or employees put off tasks until core weeks, Penrose said, but it is watching for signs of strain. The company could reassess its approach if business results dip, employee development sags or workers indicate on internal surveys that they lack a connection to the company or its culture.

If Orrville Mayor Dave Handwerk had his wish, Smucker employees would be back in the office five days a week, though he acknowledges that is now unrealistic. Fewer employees working in town means less tax revenue for the city, which is already trying to plug a roughly $1 million budget shortfall caused by a pandemic-era change in how Ohio cities tax remote workers.

“We’re not thrilled with any kind of work-at-home program," said Handwerk, who grew up in Orrville and worked as a track coach and teacher before becoming mayor in 2008. When he meets people while traveling, he said, the name Orrville typically doesn’t ring a bell—until he says “home of Smuckers."

There are other signs that hybrid life has changed Orrville. Mrs. J’s, a breakfast restaurant on Main Street, now opens its doors at 7 a.m. instead of 5 a.m. as it did before the pandemic.

Sandy Boyd, who has spent 28 years serving homemade sausage, gravy and biscuits and other diner specialties, said there is no longer an immediate crush of customers when Mrs. J’s opens. “I don’t know if that’s because some people are working from home," she said.

At the McDonald’s directly across from Smucker’s headquarters, sales are down, even as other locations in Northeast Ohio see an uptick in revenue, said Tom Locke, a McDonald’s franchisee who owns more than 50 stores in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

The Orrville location, once one of Locke’s fastest-growing, has seen the number of transactions fall 3% this year, after dropping 12.8% last year, which he attributes, in part, to the Smucker office-policy change. Fewer Smucker employees are getting a coffee before work, and the breakfast and lunch rushes look different. “We’re seeing a lot less badges," said Locke, who also owns shares in Smucker.

Super commuters

How employees show up for core weeks varies. Many continue to drive in from nearby cities like Cleveland, as they did before the pandemic. Some employees live in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh and drive several hours to Orrville, staying overnight. The company’s chief marketing officer splits her time between Connecticut and Vermont and commutes to Orrville for every core week. Penrose spent much of this summer in Western New York.

Other employees fly in from even greater distances.

Nicole Massey is now among the Smucker super-commuters. About twice a month during core weeks, she leaves her home in San Francisco and flies into Cleveland on a Monday evening. She checks in to a hotel or an Airbnb about 20 minutes from campus and then packs her week with team meetings in the office, catch-up chats with colleagues and work dinners. On Thursday afternoon, she typically flies home.

“We kind of take advantage of the time when we know we’re going to be here," she said.

Massey joined Smucker after a 2015 acquisition of the parent company of Meow Mix, and said she spent much of her time at Smucker in a nonmanagement role, not wanting to take on a leadership position if she couldn’t be in Orrville full-time. Largely because of its acquisitions, Smucker has for years had some remote workers and corporate employees based outside of Orrville. But during the pandemic, and the dawn of widespread remote work, Massey saw an opportunity. She accepted a job as a vice president of marketing, overseeing the company’s consumer-foods division, which includes Uncrustables and its jams and peanut butters.

“We had this core-week policy in place, and it made me feel like I could raise my hand and say, ‘Hey, I still might need a little bit more flexibility than someone who lives down the street in Akron, but if I’m willing to invest in and get myself to Ohio, and that’s a commitment that I’m willing to make, is the company willing to consider me for this role?’ " she said. “They were."

The approach is working. Massey, who is the mother of two teenage boys, said she keeps East Coast hours during non-core weeks, and feels that she is able to see her family more than if she needed to commute regularly to an office in the Bay Area.

“I travel more," she said, “but I really feel I’m home and present actually much more than I would be if I was working at a company in the Bay Area and commuting even three days a week."

Mark Smucker, the CEO, said Smucker will continue to evaluate its hybrid-work policy and make adjustments, if needed. So many people have gotten accustomed to video meetings and remote work, he isn’t expecting any major changes soon.

“Whether it’s this model, or some other model, I find it very hard to imagine a world where we go back to being in the office even four days a week, let alone five. I just don’t see it happening," Smucker said. “There’ll be some form of this forever."

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