Leaders: Build the Frame

The 'Back to the Office' Conversation - Part Two

I love the limestone wall my son-in-law Joshua built for me. I was confident he had the creativity and skills to pull it off and I was not disappointed.

Although Joshua carried much of the load, I did have one job to do in advance - I had to build the frame around which the wall would be created. The frame (blue arrow points to it) turned out to be vital.

It allowed Joshua freedom and creativity to exercise his puzzle-making skills with the peace of mind that the wall would be level, straight and square to the cottage. Lots of decision-making latitude was left to Joshua; he decided how the stones would fit together, how far they would stand out from the frame, how many rows there would be and how high the final row of stones should sit above the frame.

As the popular saying goes, “There’s freedom in a frame.”

All this points to a great leadership principle Samantha and Marc Hurwitz teach in Leadership is Half the Story: leaders build the frame so followers can create within it.

Why does this matter today? We’re in the middle of the Back to the Office conversation and managers find themselves struggling to fit the disparate puzzle pieces into a workable form:

Customers: “We’ve given you the benefit of the doubt. Now WE NEED YOU BACK.”

Leaders: “We need to restore service levels and business continuity. Time for people to come back to the office.”

Employee with aging mother: “I’m not coming back to the office until you guarantee it’s safe.”

Employee with young kids: “I desperately need to get back to the office to feel normal and productive.”

There are no blanket solutions, no textbook tactics, no universal policies managers can use to complete this puzzle. Like never before, we need managers to engage in powerful human connection to co-create individualized solutions with their employees. We need them to courageously make exceptions, co-author bespoke solutions and intelligently balance the three things that matter most: the customer experience, the employee experience and organizational results.

None of this is possible without leaders, and the leadership skill that’s pivotal today is building the frame managers can create within.

What’s an example of a frame people can create within? A few examples are:

  • Your values
  • Your mission
  • Team norms
  • A good job description

But the Back to the Office conversation demands a more explicit frame, something like:

  • “safely increase service levels”
  • “blend business continuity with peace of mind”

A good frame:

  • Does not over-prescribe – it gives space and autonomy
  • Produces a sense of clarity and support
  • Evokes creativity and a sense of possibility
  • Is invitational - people find it easy to join in and engage in the task
  • Provides a sense of progress

Here are two go-to frames we use that facilitate the back to the office conversation. The first frame guides the manager and employee to take a partnering (versus a parenting) approach.

Partnering Frame

  1. Connect on what matters most to each other (as it relates to returning the office or not)
  2. Understand what’s possible
  3. Co-create a path to progress

This frame is then applied to a second - the three key areas which must be considered:

In short, the manager and employee partner together to align on what matters most, what’s possible and the path to progress when it comes to the employee experience, the customer experience and the results. Here’s an (abbreviated) example of how this might look:

Connect on what matters most

When the employee says, “I’m not coming back to the office until you guarantee it’s safe”, the manager inquires, “Safety is vital, and it’s important to different people for different reasons. What’s the aspect of safety that’s most important to you right now?”

“It’s my mom. She’s 87 and her health’s not great. I visit her every week in the nursing home.”

The manager acknowledges, “I see why you’re so concerned. The safety of you and your mom is a priority for both of us. And I know we’re both concerned about meeting the needs of our customers. At this point, that means a certain amount of your work happening at the office. Is that how you see it?”

Understand what’s possible

After hearing the employee’s response, the manager probes for what’s possible. “So we have tons of common ground here. I’m wondering how you can engage with our customers in a way that protects you and your mom.” (Manager and employee begin to generate options)

Co-create a path to progress

“So let me give this back to you. What you and I are agreeing to try is:

We’ll move your workspace across the hall so you’re well away from the rest of the team.

I’ll check with the team about doing our stand-up huddles outside in the courtyard with masks on, six-feet apart until the weather pushes us into a new meeting area.

You’re going to work from here in the mornings and from home in the afternoons to eliminate lunchroom exposure.

That’s going to create easier collaboration for the team, meet our customers’ needs and ensure that you have the peace of mind you need. Have I got it right?”


We all agree on the end vision; a wall that maximizes safe productivity. What differs is the approach, the puzzling it all out, the bespoke solutions that work for each individual. This all becomes possible for managers and employees when leaders build the frame.

Leaders: Build the Frame

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The Power of Conversation eBook

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On-Demand Webinar: Introducing The Power of Conversation Training

Back to the Office Conversation Part Two - Leaders: Build the Frame

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