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Richard Branson on Sheryl Sandberg, 'Leaning In,' and Balanced Workplaces

Sir Richard Branson
Simon Dawson | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Sir Richard Branson

With the release of the book "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (Random House, 2013)" by Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer at Facebook, there has been a lot of healthy debate in the United States about how companies can enable employees, especially women, to pursue their goals at work while caring for family members and raising children. With women entering the workforce in increasing numbers around the world, and since technology has blurred the lines between working hours and personal time, people in many other countries now face the same problems.

Reading Lean In, Sandberg's personal story of how she struggled to balance family and work as she advanced in her career, reminded me how essential flexibility in the workplace is when you're raising a family (I am father to two children who are now grown — Holly and Sam). At the Virgin Group, we're committed to making sure that our female employees have the tools they need to succeed, and that's one of the reasons why Virgin America has taken part in activities arranged by the nonprofit group LeanIn.org, which was established with the mission of ''offering women the ongoing inspiration and support to help them achieve their goals.''

Whether you're launching a startup or helping to grow an established company, finding solutions tailored to your group's needs will help you to build a happy, creative, dedicated team. Here are three suggestions that will help you to design more effective policies:

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1. Make your office family-friendly.
Many people spend more waking hours at the office than at home, which can be problematic for employees who must also handle the ordinary responsibilities of family life: caring for young children and sick family members, and helping the elderly.

As an entrepreneur or business leader, you should be sure to think creatively about how to provide family-friendly benefits, which will help your company to attract and keep employees. Flexible work arrangements and guaranteed paid family leave tell employees that you recognize their many responsibilities – that you care and that you valuable their contributions.

In Lean In, Sandberg admits that she didn't realize how cumbersome parking in a spot far from the office entrance could be for pregnant women until she was pregnant herself, and only then did she ask her employer to reserve some spots close to the doorway for expectant mothers. Not everyone has the authority or confidence to speak up like Sheryl, so be sure to ask your employees how you can help -- don't wait for them to come to you.

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2. Create more opportunities for women to succeed.
Sandberg puts the responsibility on women to speak up, take advantage of opportunities and prove themselves as leaders, but from my perspective, companies also need to do more. Make sure, for example, that at your company women receive equal pay and that they are given opportunities to prove themselves able to take on leadership roles — both are areas where many women still face challenges.

The flexible policies you put in place at your company can go a long way toward helping all your employees to succeed. One of our employees at Virgin, Debbie, has worked from home since her first days with us. This arrangement allowed her to raise two exceptional children while taking on more responsibilities over the years. Today, her home office permits her to work across many time zones, which is essential for the person who's in charge of all my global speaking events.

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3. Lean In and listen to your colleagues and staff.
Sandberg encourages all women to lean in and speak up: She gives the example of a meeting where there wasn't enough room at a table, and so former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's young (and as it happens, female) associates elected to sit in the back of the room. But business leaders need to do their part by listening — something we all need to be reminded about pretty frequently.

If people aren't speaking up, it is your responsibility to change that situation: At the meeting with Geithner, one of the senior executives should have ordered a larger table when the problem became evident, or just gotten rid of it and rearranged the seating so that everybody could contribute to the discussion.

When your employees do speak up, then it's your turn: it's time to earn their confidence by acting on their feedback, whether that means simply discussing a decision or promoting their ideas.

While there are many ways to configure an office, the workplace is no place for old-school thinking. If you have ideas for creating a vibrant work environment where women and men can juggle their many work and family roles, please send them in.

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