What CPAs can learn from Smucker's

By   Kyle Walters
September 27, 2023

J.M. Smucker — makers of Smucker's jam, Folger's coffee and Jif peanut butter — has an innovative return to office policy. The company expects each of its roughly 1,300 Orrville, Ohio-based corporate workers to be on site for 22 "core" weeks a year. For the other 30 weeks of the year, they can live and work anywhere they choose, as long as they get their jobs done and pay their own way to Orrville when they need to be onsite. 

In early 2022, as we emerged from the pandemic, Smucker's realized its peak workflow didn't fit into a tidy two- or three-days-per-week schedule. It needed a policy that worked for the business, and that could be explained in a way that made sense to staff. Smucker's management initially expected employees back in the office 50% of the time all year-round. They considered mandating three specific days in offices each week, but then ruled that out, declaring it too prescriptive.

After careful analysis, Smucker's identified 22 peak weeks of the year when it was more important to have everyone in-house, firing on all cylinders, collaborating, networking and mentoring. Smucker publishes its core week schedule a year in advance to allow staff and teams to plan. Most core weeks occur every other week, except for July and December when Smucker holds only one core week a month. That allows for summer vacations and winter holidays. Leaders reserve meetings requiring deep focus for core weeks — such as strategy sessions, training for customer-service teams, or multiday business planning conferences. 

The company said the core week plan not only helps it attract workers to its northeastern Ohio headquarters, but it found that during core weeks, workers log additional hours, scheduling back-to-back meetings and dinners with peers. This not only boosts productivity, but collegiality and morale.

What accounting firms can learn from Smucker's 

We certainly have our share of core weeks leading up to April 15 and then again in September and October. There are also plenty of times during the year when it's not exactly busy season. Sound familiar? We all know that accounting work is fairly seasonal, hence the term "busy season." Sure, you're working all year round, but there are certain times of year when everybody needs to step it up (February through April and September-October) and other times when it's more relaxed. Recognizing these ebbs and flow allows your team to rejuvenate and reduce the risk of burnout.

So, how can you and your team truly take advantage of the core week structure? How do you get as much benefit as possible from in-office collaboration while giving as much flexibility to work remotely? Smucker's realized there are times when employees are "batching" work from home and other times when they are batching in-the-office time. For more about batch-processing your work, see my article The future is asynchronous.

Paul Graham (co-founder of YCombinator) wrote an article called Maker's schedule, manager's scheduleHe talks about the difference between your timing as a maker and your timing as a manager. He argues that a manager's role is to block out their schedule with as many 30-minute check-ins and one-on-one meetings with their teams as possible. But makers and creators want as many huge blocks of uninterrupted time as possible to make stuff and to get into a project. They know they can't accomplish cognitively demanding tasks when it's 10 minutes on and 10 minutes off. Making and creating require deep focus and concentration. Having meetings does not.

Again, as CPAs, we need to be more deliberate about our entire work-from-home policy. In the early days of the pandemic recovery, people wanted to continue working from home. Still, the company wanted them back in the office full-time, so many organizations compromised with say, three days a week in the office and two days a week at home. 

At certain times of the work cycle, there's a lot more stuff to do. It's more efficient when we're all together getting things done because it reduces friction and miscommunication the closer people get to each other. Because there is so much seasonality with accounting firms, the Smucker's core week concept is transferable to our business. It's the best of in-the-office synergy and culture-building, combined with the best of remote work flexibility and lifestyle.

Again, requiring two or three days a week in the office — every single week — doesn't make anyone happy, especially when it's the holidays or the dog days of August. By the same token, coming into the office only two days a week during March, April, September and October might not be enough. Build your rushes of time around the seasonality of the workflow.

Finally, it's crucial that you don't force your RTO policy down people's throats but instead explain: "Here's our policy. Here's why. And here's how we thought through it."

As the timeless ad slogan goes: "With a name like Smucker's, it has to be good." Would your team say the same about your firm's RTO policy?

I'd love to hear how your firm is managing return to the office.