Why One Company's 'Strange' Return To Office Mandate Is Actually The Only One That Makes Sense

They've come up with a reasonable compromise that their employees seem to love. Other companies should follow suit.

happy workers in an office G-Stock Studio / Shutterstock

Amid all the questions surrounding return to office mandates, one thing is for certain: they're wildly unpopular with employees.

But one company has come up with a return to office model that just might be the way to solve that problem.

Smucker's return to office compromise has struck some experts as 'strange.' But it's the only model that actually makes sense.

Smucker's, the maker of everything from Jif peanut butter to Uncrustables and, of course, those delightful little jelly packets you get at diners (why are they so satisfying?), seems to have cracked the code when it comes to transitioning back to an in-office set up.


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Rather than issue a unilateral return to office mandate, the company, located in rural Orrville, Ohio, has come up with something more like a return to office compromise that allows the company to get the best of both worlds while avoiding the problems tons of other companies are having — namely, employees quitting en masse when commanded to get back to their cubicles.


Smucker's requires employees to work six days a month in-office during 22 'core weeks' each year.

Smucker's Chief People and Administrative Officer Jill Penrose came up with the company's plan as a way to sort of split the difference between the company's desire for people to be back on-site, and employees' desire to maintain their remote work freedoms.

So how does it work? Two weeks per month are designated as "core weeks" at Smucker's, with the exception of December and July when there is only one "core week" to account for summer and holiday travel. 



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Employees come to the office a total of six days during those two weeks, and the 22-week schedule is decided a year in advance so that the company's large number of employees outside the Orrville, Ohio area can plan their travel. The rest of the time, employees are free to work remotely or in-office — whichever they prefer. 

By contrast, most companies have insisted on either a full return to office or a seemingly arbitrary number of days required in office, on the basis that it helps strengthen company culture, foster mentorship and provide opportunities for face-to-face collaboration that supposedly aren't possible online.

But, of course, employees feel differently about most of these points, especially after nearly four years of seeing just how easily so many of our jobs adapt to a remote model, and finding that return-to-office mandates often mean absurdities like taking Zoom calls from an office conference room instead of at home.

Penrose wisely saw that trying to fight these realities was a losing battle, and adapted accordingly.


Smucker's developed their return to office compromise after interviewing employees about why being able to work from home is important to them.

Smucker's has essentially taken the opposite approach to return to office mandates than what pretty much every other company seems to be doing: By taking their employees' preferences seriously and finding a way to meet in the middle rather than fighting them.

As Penrose put it to Fortune, "People have needs in their lives aside from the 9-to-5 parameters," so she and the company decided to interview employees to find out what their employees' priorities are when it comes to work-from-home freedoms. Rather than force a drastic return to the pre-2020 days of work, Penrose told Fortune that she worked to find "a solution that responded to" the way things have changed.



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She said the 22 "core weeks" model was a "natural" response to these changes that takes into account "the whole person, with their own priorities and interests" — that is, still allows employees to retain much of the control over their lives that a fully remote model provides.

And by laying out the in-office schedule a year in advance and still retaining flexibility within it, Penrose said she and Smucker's have been able to avoid making employees feel like the company is "keeping score" on how much time they're spending in office.

People's attitudes toward work have changed — probably forever — and companies need to be willing to work with that, not against it.

Approaches like Smucker's not only make sense, but they help the company too in the long run, by making employees feel respected so there's less turnover, and allowing the company to retain the benefits work-from-home schemes provide, like being able to hire talent all over the world.


With more than half of workers saying they know someone who has or is planning to quit their job over return-to-office mandates — and data already showing these mandates are hurting rather than helping many companies — leaders would do well to follow Smucker's reasonable, compromise-minded approach.

Times have changed, and a lot of workers simply aren't willing to go back to the way things were.

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John Sundholm is a news and entertainment writer who covers pop culture, social justice and human interest topics.