As many employers have struggled to motivate remote employees to return to the office, the J.M. Smucker Company has had success by instituting a schedule it had never used before: core weeks. During 22 specific weeks each year, employees are required to come into the office in Orrville, Ohio, but they can work at home the rest of the year. The food and beverage maker's employees say this approach allows for both in-person collaboration and scheduling flexibility.
At a time when 52 percent of employees say they prefer to work remotely or hybrid for the rest of their careers, according to a Microsoft survey, and office usage in many cities is at less than half of pre-pandemic levels, the acceptance of core weeks by employees is considered a win. And several strategies are emerging that can make this approach a smart one for other companies.
At Making Science, a marketing and advertising agency in Chicago with 1,200 employees nationally, the core week concept has taken hold. "We have sales teams distributed across the U.S., and we make a point to get the entire U.S. team together for core weeks throughout the year," said Mallory Bradford, chief customer officer. "This is for team building, skill building and to ensure we are listening to each other and holding ourselves accountable to maintaining a team mentality."
With this balanced approach to work, Bradford said Making Science can "harness the benefits of both in-person and remote work and provide flexibility and support in all environments."
At other companies, core days serve a similar purpose to core weeks. At Marvin, a windows and doors manufacturer in Warroad, Minn., with 7,000 employees, most employees in nonmanufacturing roles are required to be in the office for two to three core days a week. This policy was created following a review of internal surveys and employee focus group feedback.
"Employees need consistency and predictability, but also a strong 'why' rooted in the company's culture in order to see the value of in-office work," said Renee Rice, Marvin's senior director of communications and culture. "We continue to check in to discover how the hybrid model is going and what could be improved."
In-Person Events Are a Draw
At Datasite, a Minnesota software company with 1,000 employees, many departments can determine the schedule of core days that works best for each team, said CHRO Deb LaMere. For example, one team declared Wednesdays as an in-office day to foster relationship building and deeper collaboration. During those days, Datasite arranges all-hands meetings, learning opportunities and fun events.
"At our headquarters in Minneapolis, at which about 400 employees are based, we've held several fun and educational events, such as a Minnesota Vikings party and a taco lunch with leadership and board members, to give employees a specific date on which they can come into the office and likely reconnect with colleagues," LaMere said. "Having in-office days and events can foster camaraderie, build connections and give employees a chance to celebrate."
Another organization that hosts in-person events on core days is TechSmith, a software company in East Lansing, Mich. TechSmith brings in guest speakers, holds informational sessions, brings in a catered lunch, hosts "bring your kid to work" day and sets up basketball tournaments to get employees back into the office, said Amy Casciotti, vice president of human resources. The point of all these events is to encourage connection.
"We strongly believe that a combination of in-office and remote work is ideal," Casciotti said. "In-office time provides opportunities for relationship building and connecting with others across the organization outside of your standard working group and gives people new perspectives and opportunities they may otherwise not experience. Those collisions are important to have, but they don't need to happen all the time. It's why we let most of the decisions around remote and in-office work happen at the team level."
Hire Employees Near the Office
Bynder, a digital assessment management company based in Boston, offers a hybrid work model for its 550 employees. Those who live locally come into the office two to three core days per week and work remotely the rest of the time.
"As a company, when we're looking for new talent, the preference would be to find someone living near one of the Bynder offices so they can go into the office on a regular basis to meet up with others," said Ruben Vermaak, global director of people and talent. "It is important to us for our employees to form connections, which can be difficult with fully remote roles."
Vermaak noticed that employees who worked in a Bynder office at some point and then worked remotely later had good connections with their colleagues. "If a company or individual prefers a remote-first approach, it's important that the whole team meets in person at least a few times a year for brainstorming sessions, training and team bonding," he said.
Make the Office More Appealing
It's tough for employers to compete with working from home, where employees have access to many creature comforts. But by making the office more comfortable, more employees might be motivated to return on days or weeks that are designated as core. For instance, Making Science recently opened a new space in Chicago's River North neighborhood that features a kitchen full of free snacks and beverages, as well as weekly in-person training on a range of skills.
"We want it to be an inviting, collaborative space that employees enjoy working from when they head into the office," Bradford said.
At TechSmith, headquarters is "meticulously designed for connections. It has two kitchens on different floors with designated purposes—specialty drinks on one floor and snacks on another—to drive cross-pollination of people," Casciotti said. "It also has many hangout rooms to encourage getting together, and a huge atrium for people to sit and chat with each other. We also have adult beverages to encourage impromptu happy hours."
But whether company leaders decide to implement core days or weeks, hold in-person events, or offer other perks to encourage the return to the office, one thing is clear: Employees must be involved to determine what works best.
"Ultimately, there needs to be mutual respect and compromise to ensure both parties are content with their working situation so they can remain happy and productive," Casciotti said. "Flexibility is a two-way street. Companies need to be flexible if they want employees to be flexible, and vice versa."
Kylie Ora Lobell is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.