The WFA skills every business leader needs

By now, odds are you’ve gotten used to working with a remote team – but how do you lead when your colleagues can work from anywhere, and are as likely to be in the office as they are to be at home? Licensed psychologist Dr Tami Lubitsh-White shares her advice on the skills every leader now needs

What’s the difference between leading a centralised team and leading the one that works from anywhere?

It’s important to understand how important a ‘sense of belonging’ is to an employee’s motivation and willingness to go the extra mile. When everybody used to come into the same office in the morning, there were simple, shared experiences that stemmed from being in the same location – taking the lift together, making a coffee in the kitchen or small talk in the boardroom before a meeting. Now that people are increasingly able to WFA (work from anywhere), a lot of these shared experiences are gone – creating a challenge for leaders who want to foster a united team.

Leaders have much less control over the work environment of their employees and are often at the mercy of bandwidth limitations and other technical issues. Often different time zones are required to accommodate employees. There’s also the danger of a two-tier system, where those who are working from the office are privy to information or advantages (usually unintentional) that are not available to colleagues who continue to work from home.

Managing a WFA team requires creating a new workplace culture, where building trust and a deeper understanding of communication styles are essential. In the ‘old world’, understanding others’ communication and connecting styles was an advantage – today, in the virtual world, it’s a necessity.

How can leaders make sure that remote office employees feel part of the team?

Hybrid leadership is the ability to make everyone feel like part of the team – no matter where they are. Your colleague may be behind a screen while you’re in the office, or vice versa – it’s your job as a leader to adapt how you communicate with them depending on the specific situation.

To help you do this, it’s useful to understand the different ‘connector types’ you work with. Knowing the working style of your colleague (what motivates and frustrates them) will help you communicate better.

For example, if a person’s connector style is ‘goal oriented’, it’s best to keep interactions short and to the point. While, if a person’s connector style is ‘people oriented’, you should spend more time for informal communication. If a person’s connector style is based on having data, you as a leader should provide as much background information ahead of the meeting. And if a person is an innovator, you can suggest that they lead with a warm-up or add a creative closure to the meeting.

But no matter an individual’s connector style, it’s always a good idea to regularly check in with your team and ask them how they feel. You can’t go wrong with the question: “How can I support you?” Listen to the answer and try to follow through with practical help.

How can leaders hold executive presence from afar?

Leaders today need to work on developing ‘virtual gravitas’ – something that can be achieved by being honest and authentic. Leaders are responsible for creating a safe environment (whether that’s virtual or in the office) where it is OK to be vulnerable, talk about challenges openly and admit mistakes. Sometimes it may be necessary to lead by example.

In terms of improving your technological ‘presence’, leaders should consider the following for their next video call: having appropriate lighting, having minimal headspace so you will occupy most of the screen, being aware of the décor behind you, and talking more slowly to accommodate the time lag.

What should leaders know about hosting effective hybrid meetings?

The goal is to make everyone feel included, valued and ‘seen’, whether they are in the room or behind a screen. Try starting your meeting with individual introductions and asking the participants to state where they are and the time zone they are in. When presenting, make sure to leave time at the end of each section, so people can ask questions.

It can also help to have a clear agenda, which will allow the people participating online to have equal time to express themselves. Build in some informal time for networking or chatting at the start or end of the call.

How can leaders be better at virtual communication?

Communication has always been an important leadership skill, but it’s now more vital than ever. This includes being clearer than usual about roles and responsibilities, making yourself more available to your team and asking for continued and explicit feedback.

Make every communication count: don’t neglect the phone call, overcome the temptation to multitask when you’re speaking to someone, and don’t give up on difficult conversations.

For effective communication across an organisation, I also recommend setting up a buddy system in addition to regular large ‘town hall’ company meetings. By pairing colleagues and encouraging them to chat, you can facilitate a sense of belonging and a safe space for people to receive support from each other.

Dr Tami Lubitsh-White is the co-author of Connect: Resolve Conflict, Improve Communication, Strengthen Relationships (Financial Times Publishing)

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