Key Takeaways from Smucker’s Flexible Work Evolution

“How do we do this?” How do we execute a flexible work model that works? Stories help. They can inspire, even if the path chosen wouldn’t work for anyone else, what matters more is the process they followed.

Chip Cutter shared a great story in The Wall Street Journal this past weekend. It shows how The J.M. Smucker Co. continues to evolve its flexible operating model, or the way the organization will operate flexibly across workplaces, spaces and time.

Key takeaways from the article that SHOULD inform how other organizations approach defining their model:

  • Their “strategy” was set after months of internal debate (that should include employees).
  • They ruled out mandatory specific days -Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday – as too prescriptive.
  • People seem to be prioritizing activities that benefit from in person interaction.
  • They seem to have decided that even if workspaces aren’t used during non-core weeks the overhead is worth carrying to enable in person interactions when onsite. This is a new workspace ROI more employers will need to reckon with as well.
  • They will continue to reassess the approach if business results suffer. An organization’s flexible work model will need to be reviewed and recalibrated as realities change.
  • How the CEO, Mark Smucker, reinforces the flexible context within which work will continue to happen and evolve: “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.”

The takeaway that SHOULD NOT inform how other organizations define their flexible work model: “22 core weeks is the answer.”

Core weeks in person may be AN aspect of an effective flexible work model, and they may not be. It will depend on the business and the measurable outcomes that are determined to be achieved better with onsite, in person interaction.

It may be 22 core weeks OR it may be once a month or it may be quarterly. Again, it depends. This is the approach that The J.M. Smucker Co. decided could work best for their 1,600 corporate workers (out of a 6,000 total workforce) but that doesn’t mean it’s going to work for every other organization.

This is the challenge of today’s flexible work reality. The “9-to-5, in the office Monday-Friday” traditional work model set the collective context of work pre-COVID (even though it was already disappearing). Now one-size-will-NOT-fit-all, but what others are doing can offer insight as long as it emerged from a thoughtful, holistic process.

One question I had after reading the article: How does The J.M. Smucker Co. flexible operating model include the other 4,400 employees? If it’s solely limited to those who could work “hybrid” then likely it doesn’t. But if it’s focused on how, when, and where all employees can do their jobs “flexibly” then the manufacturing employees can also reimagine how and when they work, and increasingly even where.

It’s all in how you approach and frame what’s possible.

WeWork and the role of co-working as AN enabler of work — Marketplace

It’s hard to believe it is already mid-August!  One thing is for sure, the ever-evolving world of work isn’t taking a vacation.

Last week I had the opportunity to reinforce an important point as part of this Marketplace segment about what’s going on with WeWork specifically, co-working more broadly, and workspace in general: “We are coming out of what was a crisis-driven execution of flexibility…And we are still reimagining how, when, and where we’re going to work.”

This reimagining will include how, when, and where we utilize all types of spaces and places as AN (not THE) enabler of work—employer headquarters, satellite office “hubs”, client sites, independent co-working spaces, home offices, restaurants, coffee shops, libraries, etc.

Because there are many “wheres” in which to work flexibly beyond the duality of home or office, I continue to encourage the move beyond the limits of “hybrid” which by definition is “a thing made by combining two different elements”.

We will be in this state of flux for a while because every organization is still figuring out how their people will work flexibly, which has to come first. Then the alignment with spaces of all types an organization or individual needs, will become clearer.  Listen or read the story here.

How are workspaces in your organization enabling the evolving, flexible way teams and individuals work?  What types of workspaces, both onsite and remote, are part of the enablement infrastructure?  Let me know


Directors: How to Engage a Diverse & NextGen Workforce & Workplace with WCD Global Institute

It’s no secret that across all demographics, flexibility is a top driver for employee recruitment, engagement, and retention. In fact, a recent Korn Ferry survey found 72% of workers would choose jobs with a lower salary if those jobs offered flexibility. Following the pandemic’s crisis-driven shift to flexible work, employees know they can be productive and successful when working outside of the traditional model, and they don’t want to give it up. Especially the next-generation workforce.

Those younger employees were top of mind at the recent Women Corporate Directors Foundation’s Global Institute 2023 where I joined C-suite executives who are also board directors for a dynamic panel discussion on “Engaging a Diverse & NextGen Workforce & Workplace.”

We discussed how, as business leaders and boards closely evaluate their workplace needs, their goal is to ensure that a diverse, engaged, and productive workforce is in place today and for the future. That will require reimagining how work is done. My panel partners echoed that flexibility is the number one expectation for talent in their organizations, and boards will play a key role in making sure the evolution of work considers the needs of the business and employees.

It’s interesting that historically organizations have looked to their Directors for their experience leading through challenge and change, but with flexibility, few will be able to draw on past experiences. This is one area where directors need to learn while checking their perceptions and beliefs about how work should be done in order to guide and inform.

Aim to make operating with intention across workplaces, spaces, and time how EVERYONE works.  So, millennials aren’t viewed as “not wanting to work hard.” So, women and people of color aren’t given “career penalties” for wanting the work+life fit that meets their needs. And boomers see working flexibly as an option besides retiring full-time.

Yes, we have to close the gaps between employee and management expectations – the clash of contexts I speak about so often. Yes, work is messy right now after COVID’s historic disruption. (Let’s remember, though, work wasn’t always perfect pre-pandemic, either.) But we have to meet the moment now with an equally disruptive but thoughtful, strategic and purposeful rethinking of work and how, when, and where it can be done.

The gaps may feel insurmountable, but the consensus was that Directors must play an important role in driving positive, sustainable change in the coming months and years. Important conversations such as those we had at the WCD Global Institute will help pave the way.

Are you a director, or does your board need help understanding what strategic work flexibility is, why it matters, how its executed effectively, and how they play a role in success? If the answer is “yes,” let’s connect and talk about how we can facilitate a discussion that will prepare you and them to lead effectively from the Boardroom.

For my friends in the U.S., hopefully, you had some time off over July 4th for some rest and relaxation. I know I needed it!  We hit the beach.  Here’s the view from an early morning walk. Magic.

On Point National Public Radio Episode and Re-Thinking a Better Way to Work

Let’s be honest. Work before the pandemic wasn’t exactly awesome. Even then, training, talent development, and technology were just a few workplace challenges. It’s no surprise we’re struggling with those same issues now. So, why are organizations mandating employees return to the office and to a work model that was already flawed?! And what should we be doing instead?

These are just a few topics I discussed last week with host  Meghna Chakrabarti of WBUR Boston’s On Point, a nationally syndicated public radio program. How can we re-imagine work to meet the moment and seize the opportunity to work better than before and during the pandemic?

“I have seen countless times (that when) organizations sit down and ask, ‘What are we doing? And how, when and where do we do it best?’” they unlock “a whole new level of engagement, performance, and well-being through that process.”

That’s what organizations should do now, but they’re not. Instead, they simply send an email with a set number of days in the office and leave it at that. That’s why we’re stuck.

Instead of focusing on a “return” to the office. Let’s focus on a “return” to fundamentals, from performance to productivity, from engagement to culture. Now that’s a “return” I can support. And speaking of culture, I believe culture is an outcome. It’s not necessarily a starting point. Culture was another thing we didn’t do so well before the pandemic.

But now we “have an opportunity to reinforce the values of the organization, to think about what matters to us — thinking about who we are, what do we do, how and where do we do it? That then becomes our culture. We become a high performing, dynamic, diverse, inclusive, flexible work culture,” and organization.

That takes leadership “willing to hold the space” for a “much more robust rethinking of work across a bunch of dimensions vs. just being in the office. Is it about days in office or is it about what are we doing when we’re together in person, and what are we doing when we’re not?”

When I recently posed that question to the senior leadership of a 10,000- person national professional services firm, they all raised their hands and said, “It’s the second thing.” My reply, “Well, then let’s do that. Let’s stop doing the mandate.”

Read the transcript or listen to the On Point episode to learn how these leaders and their business line teams are working together to develop the parameters and structure of their high performing AND flexible business operating model.

That’s the type of collective effort we need going forward. That’s how we can make flexible work – work – when we’re together and when we’re not, for both the business and the employee.

My NJ Star Ledger Op Ed What’s Next for Work Now that COVID Emergencies Expired

Imagine a future in which leaders, rather than clinging to a model of work that was fast becoming outdated even before 2020, invest in a new era of strategic and intentional high performance flexibility.

Yet, with COVID public health emergency declarations expiring last month, it’s clear employers and employees are not on the same page about how, when, and where we work going forward. In an opinion piece published in this past Sunday’s New Jersey Star Ledger, I provide both context for why and guidance on how to close this gap.

You can read the full piece below, but if I can offer one hopeful takeaway it’s this:

“Now is the time for employers and employees to move past failed mandates and entrenched positions and reimagine work together … The effort is not only worth it, but also transformational.”

By Cali Williams Yost

While COVID public health emergency declarations expired last month, the way we work is forever changed. Flexible work certainly had roots before we were mandated to stay home in March of 2020. But those changes were abrupt with no time to plan. Organizations quickly had to transform how they operated, and in some cases even survived.

Three years later, it’s clear employers and employees are not on the same page about how, when, and where we work going forward. Many leaders with genuine concerns about innovation, talent development, and culture believe the best work happens onsite while employees believe they’ve done their jobs well, or even better, with increased flexibility.

Both sides have some validity, which has led to a historic clash of contexts between the two. Leaders demand “come back” and employees rightfully ask, “Why?” Attempts to close this gap with return-to-office mandates, extra perks, and events fall flat.

As employers double down on compliance, it’s pushing employees further toward the door. Additionally, this approach makes work even less flexible than before COVID. The more rigid policies become, the more organizations miss the opportunity to develop a well-executed flexibility strategy that enhances job performance, employee engagement, and well-being. Now is the time for employers and employees to move past failed mandates and entrenched positions and reimagine work together.

But first, we need to recognize that COVID accelerated an existing trend toward greater flexibility and the priority now is to optimize that flexibility. Leaders need to stop wasting resources trying to “go back” and instead invest in high-performance flexibility across workplaces, spaces and time.

Data from my firm’s research conducted before the pandemic found most U.S. employees had some form of flexibility with more than one-third saying they did most of their work remotely. But that same survey showed nearly half of those with flexibility received no training or guidance how to use it. Additionally, in a Harvard Business School survey of 6,500 global leaders, also conducted before COVID, respondents cited “expectation for flexibility” as the top future of work factor they expected to impact their businesses, yet prepared for that flexibility was ranked 14th.

Second, come to terms with the price and payoff of optimizing flexibility. Just as with other business priorities and change, high-performance flexibility requires strategic intention, resources, commitment, and a willingness to collectively experiment and learn. The payoff is a dynamic, agile business and workforce that takes the best of how, when and where we worked both before and during the pandemic and moves forward from there.

Third, stop with the mandates and stop using a set number of days in office as a proxy for performance. Instead, leaders and teams together need to first ask, “What do we need to get done and why?” That lays the foundation to determine how, when and where we can do the best work and meet the needs of both the business and the employees. This also allows leaders to address what they believe was lost during the pandemic’s crisis-driven shift to flexible work and what they see as most important to regain.

Lastly, understand that inclusion in the process, not the outcome, ensures consistency and fairness. When everyone’s involved in answering the questions above, then everyone’s involved in redefining how, when and where they work next. That will differ by the job, the organization and the clientele, but under the umbrella of a consistent flexibility strategy.

For the majority of workers who do their jobs onsite, reconsider how and when they work. For those who can work either onsite or remotely, rethink how they spend their time when in person. And for those with fully remote roles, determine how they remain connected with colleagues and integral to day-to-day operations. Work will never be one-size-fits-all.

As we move past COVID’s public health emergency, some will continue to cling to a work model that was fast becoming outdated even before 2020. But I hope most will invest in a new era of strategic and intentional high-performance flexibility, one in which we move past entrenched beliefs and reimagine the future of work. The effort is not only worth it but also transformational.


Return to office mandates that force a set number of days are often doomed to fail

I can’t say it enough – return to office mandates that force a set number of days are often doomed to fail. Even so, now that COVID public health emergencies have expired, companies are increasingly doubling down on mandates – and many are accompanied by “or else” threats.

Thankfully, the national media notices this trend. In an NBC Nightly News report last Thursday that focused on the “Return to Office Crackdown,” I shared the core problem with these threats in the simplest terms. Can you do it? Sure. But should you?

“You can mandate people coming back, and they may very well comply,” I said. “But that is not an engaged, purpose-driven, happy employee.”

A related story last week from The Washington Post’s Taylor Telford, “To fill offices, Google issues ultimatum while Salesforce tries charity,” discussed incentives employers are using to lure workers back, yet do nothing to answer the most important question: what will we do better onsite, together and what will we do when we are not?

“Many experts believe that office mandates aren’t enough to create stronger company cultures. Cali Williams Yost, a longtime flexible work strategist, said that many executives are ‘trying to avoid’ the hard work of figuring out how to make time spent together translate into meaningful connections, as opposed to simply ordering a certain amount of days in the office.”

As I told Taylor, some employees will comply because they don’t want to lose their jobs. But in no way does that lead to an engaged, focused and intentional way of working.

When will corporate leaders understand that neither mandates nor incentives to get employees back onsite in offices will work? I’ve seen trends come and go and worry as we move farther from the pandemic’s worst days that corporate leaders will fall back to failed work patterns. My hope, though, is that we grab this opportunity to foster a new era of strategic and intentional high performance flexibility, one in which we move past entrenched beliefs and reimagine the future of work.

“Return-to-office mandates won’t magically improve young employees’ career development”

As questions about hybrid workplaces and how, when, and where we do our best work continue to take center stage moving forward from COVID, one of biggest reasons leaders give for seeking a return to the office – either by mandate or by guessing on a magic number of days – is the need for onboarding, training, and developing talent in today’s flexible work environments.

This was the topic of a recent conversation I had with Jeanne Sahadi of CNN Business and the focus of her resulting article, “Return-to-office mandates won’t magically improve young employees’ career development.”

As I told Jeanne, and as I tell every leader who will listen, “Fixating on the question of ‘how many days should employees be in the office?’ is the wrong approach. One size will not fit all. That is why mandates are failing.”

I advise leaders that the better approach is to let individual operating units within an organization decide for themselves how often they need to be in person after addressing the same series of questions:

1. What work needs to be done?
2. How should we train and mentor new talents to achieve that?
3. How, when and where can training and work happen best?

When mandates are handed down in the name of enhancing the onboarding process or being necessary to preserve an organization’s culture, it sets up what I call the clash of contexts: employees fail to see the need to be in the office when they’ve been satisfied and productive remotely; organizations fail to clearly define how on-site work supports the purpose and goals of the business.
My suggested questions put the focus back where it needs to be: on the work that needs to get done. And, as I also shared with Jeanne, “Included in the answers are issues of onboarding and how to successfully foster observation and learning — while realistically assessing what is best done in person versus what can be accomplished remotely. In general, there has been a lack of intentionality of how we develop young people. It wasn’t awesome pre-COVID either. This is an opportunity to do better.”

To be clear, in-person absolutely matters, unless time together is spent siloed behind closed doors on randomly mandated days. But leaders have to start by defining their why or purpose and then work with their teams collaboratively to re-imagine how in-person time supports culture and collaboration and, in turn, fosters productive and meaningful onboarding and training.

Finally, a quick shout out to Mark Gilbreath who recognized the importance of this topic and included Jeanne’s article in his “Another week, another wave” round up newsletter, which includes 5 news items from the world of work and workplace you can digest in 5 minutes.

Clash of Context

Why can’t employers and employees seem to agree on how, when, and where work will get done most effectively going forward?

The illustration below tells the story.


This conflict is often portrayed as a “power” battle between employer and employee. However, that would require a level of awareness about the position you are choosing to hold in opposition to another.

This is more of a gap in understanding caused by circumstances — i.e., “context”:

On one side of the clash are many leaders who still genuinely believe, even after three years of working very differently, that work and performance happen best in the traditional, place-based work model. There may be some degree of flexibility AROUND it, but the traditional “9-to-5, in the office, M-F” model remains the central organizing core. That’s their default context.

On the other side of the clash are employees who genuinely believe they can work effectively OUTSIDE of the traditional work model, even though the flexible way they worked for three years was crisis-driven and not executed with thoughtful, coordinated intention, perhaps causing priorities like talent development and culture to suffer. But that’s their default context.

Leaders and employees need to be willing to move beyond their respective contexts.

Leaders have to acknowledge we aren’t going “back,” BUT also employees have to recognize that their pandemic-driven flexibility likely needs to be optimized to meet the needs of the business AND people.

Co-create a NEW context.

Take the best of what we learned over the past three years.

Recapture the best of what the traditional, place-based work model had to offer.

Then, together, define and experiment with how high performance and well-being will happen working flexibly going forward, recognizing one-size-will-NOT-fit-all.

Is this clash of contexts playing out in your organization?  Hit “REPLY” and share what you are seeing, because now that I’ve recognized it, I see it happening everywhere.

Please check out my LinkedIn and Instagram feeds and, if you haven’t done so already, check out our Work Flexibility Assessment.


We’re in “a phase of trial and error that comes with staggering stakes.”

This past week a sentence from a terrific article by Emma Goldberg in the New York Times entitled, “Office Mandates. Pickleball. Beer. What Will Make Hybrid Work Stick?” struck me:

“Business leaders are in a phase of trial and error that comes with staggering stakes.”

Why “staggering stakes”?  Whether or not it’s done with intention, organizations are defining how, when, and where they will execute their strategic priorities from now on.

That’s a big deal.

However, defining your flexible operating parameters is going to take a lot more than mandates, pickleball, and beer to make that “flexibility” (because that’s what it is–not “hybrid”) stick.

Leaders and employees need to get on the same page about what that go-forward flexible work model looks like and why it matters. Right now, they are not.

The article accurately depicts many leaders’ current, top-down approach and why it won’t close that leader-employee gap.

The main reasons can be found in this one paragraph:

“They (leaders) are figuring out how many days to call employees back to the office, and on top of that, how strictly to enforce their own rules. While some companies are in five days a week and others have gone remote forever, many more employers have landed on a hybrid solution, and as they announce these plans they are facing fierce resistance.”

Let’s break it down:

⚠️ LEADERS on their own can’t figure out how, when, and where their people will operate and expect buy-in and understanding. You must involve line managers and their direct reports in that process knowing one-size-will-NOT-fit-all.

⚠️ Solving for “how many days” only defines days work happens onsite and remotely but does nothing to determine what is actually happening on those days in the office together and what is going to happen on the days people are remote.

⚠️ When you are “calling people back” versus involving them, as trusted adults, in defining how, when and where high levels of performance happen best going forward, it’s not surprising that “fierce resistance” is the response.

⚠️ You won’t have to wonder “how strictly to enforce,” something people have a say in determining.

⚠️ “Their own rules” again, “their” “rules”–Not a recipe for engagement, understanding, and buy-in.

What would be better?

👏👏👏 Involving all levels of the organization in answering the question “What do we need to do?” and then “how, when, and where do we do it”

It takes longer and requires more effort than a one-size-fits-all, top-down mandate but ultimately, you’ll arrive at a new flexible way of operating faster and with more buy-in.

How long will leaders keep trying mandates, pickleball, and beer before they realize they have to…

HPF 2023 Update — Open Office Hours, Videos and Thought Starters!

Dear Friends,

It’s been a month since we launched HPF 2023. The goal is to close the massive gap between the 87% of leaders who say finding the right workplace model is important and the 24% who feel they’re very ready to do it.

So what have we done?

In addition to the Work Flexibility Assessment to help organizations identify what’s working and what isn’t, we are:

Hosting our first OPEN OFFICE HOURS — Join me LIVE on Friday, February 24 from 12:00 pm to 12:30 pm EST.  I will be available to answer your questions or share insights. Click the button below for the Zoom link.
You can also submit your questions in advance to Alison Batten at

High Performance Flexibility Open Office Hours!
We have:

Proposed that we ask a NEW question in 2023 instead of “how many days on site and how many days remote?” in this Flexibility Friday video. (above)

Encouraged first reimagining work in this thought starter (below), because I’m seeing too many work “redesigns” that are just trying to add more remote work around the edges of the traditional, pre-COVID, place-based work model with limited success.

Those efforts may address “where” work is done, but it puts the primary emphasis on the office without clarifying what’s happening there. And it ignores “how” (technology) and “when” (time), which are key considerations when optimizing flexibility.

Asked if when we say “in the office,” are we really talking about “in-person interactions?” There’s a difference as I noted on my recent trip to visit a client in Boston.
And, finally, offered the reminder that what we’ve experienced since March 2020 is NOT well-planned, intentional work flexibility. That’s what’s next.
Be sure to check out my LinkedIn and Instagram feeds each week to comment on future thought starters and videos.  If you haven’t done so already, check out the Work Flexibility Assessment and join me for the Open Office Hours on February 24th!