How leadership can get staff back to the office

Whether many employees want it or not, returning to the office is happening. And while there’s no playbook for how leaders can manage this shift—all companies and their people face unique circumstances—it’s clear going back to 2019 norms isn’t going to work. Lives have changed too much and, in many cases, so have employees’ expectations and priorities.

So, what’s a leader to do? They can start by considering the needs of all colleagues in this new way of working, particularly the dominant pool of dual-career couples (DCCs). Some 81% of women and 63% of men are in DCCs, and many have spent the better part of two years juggling working from home with running households, homeschooling children, caring for sick family members, and generally trying to avoid a global pandemic. If you don’t make an effort to truly understand what employees have dealt with—and how that impacts their appetite to return to the office—you risk accelerating the Great Resignation.

Many workers—particularly women—are exhausted. Our research for Women in the Workplace, a 2021 report published in partnership with LeanIn.Org, found about 42% of women feel burnt out, along with 35% of men. In addition, one in ten employees in DCCs feel increased personal demands—such as caring for children or sick relatives—have contributed to missing out on a raise, promotion, or other advancement. In simple terms, they worry taking care of life while working from home has decimated their employers’ confidence and trust in them, and it has exacerbated fears they are being judged negatively for caregiving responsibilities.

A big part of supporting employees are programs and policies such as parental leave or flexible working arrangements. Yet what’s also needed is for leaders to be role models, truly demonstrating an effort to achieve work-life balance—particular for dual-career couples—through their behavior and actions. It’s by walking the walk that employees, especially women, feel confident taking advantage of programs and policies. Instead, today, 32% of women feel judged when taking advantage of opportunities to work flexibly.

We argue that instead of updating the employee handbook, leaders must show employees how to embrace a new way of working with flexibility, boundaries, and balance. Here’s how you build credibility.

Explicitly redefine priorities and boundaries

Our research found this was a critical insight that opposite-gender DCCs could learn from same-gender working couples. Same-gender DCCs split household work more equitably and approach balancing each partner’s career more evenly. How? They have explicit conversations about what makes sense for them as a couple, free from gender norms. For example, same-gender DCCs consider relative preferences, skillsets, and schedule flexibility in dividing responsibilities, rather than defaulting to norms that men do certain tasks, while women do others. Leaders can learn from this approach, using shared discussions to explicitly define their own boundaries as they and their partners return to the office.

Show, don’t tell

Actions speak louder than words. Leaders need to visibly demonstrate a work-life balance for team members to feel confident in what works for them individually. And not only should leaders set these boundaries but they should hold to them. By the way, this goes beyond childcare. Big or small, leaders should be transparent with team members about the balance they put in place for themselves and their households. You’d be amazed how powerful an example it sets when teams hear a manager say, “I can’t do a call at 5 pm because my wife has a work event that I committed to,” or “It’s my day to drop off the kids, so let’s meet at 9:30 am instead of 9 am” Seeing someone senior in the company have career success with a balanced approach sends the signal that it is possible to advance at the company while maintaining a work-life balance.

Encourage team members to follow your lead

Leaders can also encourage team members to find balance and actually use work policies designed to promote more flexibility. If a manager notices someone is stretched thin or starting to seem burnt out, they should feel comfortable asking how they can help support work-life balance or even reminding them that they should take advantage of allotted paid time off. Or if someone apologizes for being late because their child is sick and they are trying to find childcare, tell them no apology is necessary—and they should work from home and take the time they need to care for their child.

Companies are entering an unfamiliar world, where traditional expectations and ways of working no longer apply. There’s no single answer to how you adjust to this new normal. But one thing we know is having leaders who encourage their team members to demonstrate better balance—and then showing them how it’s done—are more likely to thrive over the long term.

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