Are your soft skills up to the virtual workplace?
soft skills in the virtual workplace - video conference illustration

With remote working going mainstream, how do soft skills – such as listening, attitude, dealing with people, working as a team, meeting etiquette and more – differ when you work from home instead of going to an office?

With 30 years of international remote working under her belt, Firehead’s founder CJ Walker shares her best communication tips for managers, team leaders and co-workers. Here she explains:

  • what soft skills are
  • soft skills for a virtual team
  • how to optimise your soft skills
  • considerations for setting up a virtual team
  • where remote working can go wrong
  • why soft skills can be a game-changer when it comes to virtual teamwork.

This article was originally published in ISTC Communicator, Summer 2020. CJ Walker will be discussing these issues as a guest presenter on Scott Abel’s Content Wrangler webinar on 22 October – further details and signup here: Soft skills in the virtual workplace.

CJ Walker, Firehead founderSoft skills in the virtual workplace

The coronavirus pandemic has given office workers all over the world the ultimate opportunity to work in virtual teams. Whether you love working from home (WFH) or hate it, its day has arrived for mainstream office workers. At least for now.

The situation may be temporary, but I strongly believe that this sudden, widespread use of distance working may be here more long-term. Employers who see the benefit of cost efficiencies will now view WFH as a viable option for situations they hadn’t considered before, not just for freelancers but core workers, too. If the tools and the teams are in place and functioning well, and deadlines are met, WFH will positively affect bottom lines as businesses move away from the large overhead costs of having employees on site.

It’s a big ‘if’, however. Working effectively in virtual teams requires a separate set of skills from going to the office. It has its own challenges and complications. It is a whole lot more than just a conference call and, as with any new form of human communication, can easily go wrong.

As someone who has worked from home for the best part of 30 years, in technical communications and digital communications, while raising a family, and with a team that is spread out across the northern hemisphere, I’d like to think I have learnt a few things about how to do it well. And how to avoid some of the pitfalls.

Technical communicators may be brilliant at explaining how things work, but a lot of us are introverts or prone to hiding behind our computers or used to working alone. Now that our clients and co-workers are also working from home, we are on the spot. No matter how good you are at your job, the fundamental thing you need to oil the wheels of remote teamwork at an organisation level is good soft skills.

What are soft skills?

It is an irony of the 21st century that we have more communication channels than ever before, and yet, we’re still having trouble communicating. Soft skills may not need to be prioritised in office settings, partly because they come naturally in face-to-face communication, but they are fundamental to successful distance working.

Soft skills involve those personal traits that enable people to navigate their environment, work well with others, perform well in teams, and achieve their goals with their hard technical skills.

The Collins English Dictionary defines them as “desirable qualities for certain forms of employment that do not depend on acquired knowledge: they include common sense, the ability to deal with people, and a positive flexible attitude.”

Because they are so subjective, soft skills are hardly assessed by most recruiters and employers. They aren’t well defined as criteria in the workplace because they are by their nature amorphous – although assessments such as if someone is “easy to work with” or a “good manager” are often based on these very criteria.

While seeking them out in a person may be hard, we can certainly spot soft skills by their absence.

When a colleague lacks soft skills, it affects everyone around them – resulting in anything from misunderstandings to outright avoidance. Someone who is highly technically competent, but lacks good communication skills can be read – rightly or wrongly – as incompetent in their work, or at the very least, dismissed as someone to avoid because they are “not a team player”.

When soft skills are missing in a team leader or manager, the results can be destructive for morale, motivation, cohesion and output, and leave subordinates feeling as if they can’t speak up or that their work isn’t valued. Problem-solving and decision-making may be affected, and the work may stall.

Soft skills are anything but soft when they hit the bottom line.

When soft skills are missing in the workplace, the potential for things to go wrong is real and well documented.

When the workplace is a virtual one, the effects are amplified thanks to additional issues: the lack of face-to-face cues, wrangling new technology, online team etiquette, motivation when working in isolation, concentration when working from home, and a multitude of other issues.

Valuable soft skills for virtual working

So what are the skills that you need to tap into to help make remote working run more smoothly? Having worked from home and in distributed teams for nearly 30 years, here are my top 10 soft skills for working together virtually:

  • Strong communication – speaking, written, presenting, listening and being a good team player. At a distance, we may not get verbal or visual cues so be flexible and forgiving of others – and don’t hog the conference call!
  • Courtesy – good manners, business etiquette (introductions, making sure people are heard), tolerant of others’ working styles, respectful voice, make eye contact on video calls.
  • Flexibility – adaptable, willing to adjust to new requirements, lifelong learner, teachable.
  • Integrity – honest, ethical, trustworthy, high morals and personal standards, doesn’t cut corners, follows through to deliver verbal promises.
  • Interpersonal skills – personable, kind and interested voice, sense of humour, friendly, empathetic, has self-control, patient, approachable, offers to help others using own strengths to nurture the team dynamic.
  • Proactive – optimistic, enthusiastic, encouraging, confident, willing to commit to project requirements.
  • Professionalism – business-like, commits clearly to tasks, hits deadlines, doesn’t complain behind others’ backs.
  • Responsible – accountable, reliable, gets the job done, resourceful, self-disciplined, invested, conscientious, uses common sense.
  • Teamwork – cooperative, gets along with others, agreeable, supportive, helpful, collaborative, inclusive, able to give constructive criticism.
  • Work ethic – hardworking, willing to work, loyal, takes initiative, self-motivated, punctual.

Optimising soft skills for a virtual team

Soft skills come in sets. There isn’t one that rules them all. If you have strong communication skills, but no integrity, your project is not going to succeed. If you are kind in your dealing with others, but don’t follow through on what you promise, the project results will still be lacking. All of the above skills come into play if you want your virtual project to be a success.

In the communications field, we have so many ways to bring our soft skills to the table. But there is a hierarchy to be aware of when choosing which form of communication.

The simplest way to transfer a message from one person to another is face-to-face. Your voice, with eye contact, and body language allow clarification, questions and instant confirmation. The next best way is by telephone because voice transfers so many clues to a person’s attitude. Then email for collecting written information for records, and then video conferencing comes in – although how well this works often depends on if the attendees know each other in person from the office or real life.

Optimising communication in a virtual team often starts with the choice of channel.

Questions for collocated team set-up

Figuring out your tools, technology and work processes will be key to communicating fluidly at a distance and helping establish a real connection with remote colleagues.

Some questions to ask yourself when setting up a collocated team might be:

  • What will you use for teleconferencing?
  • What project management system will you use?
  • What permissions will the various team members have?
  • When do you meet and how often?
  • Where do you store your documents and other deliverables?
  • What channel do you use to communicate first? in what order? Email, Dropbox, the content management system, telephone, text, video chat?
  • What are your standard working hours?
  • What is your policy about how long radio silence is acceptable from one of the team members?

Setting up a collocated community involves a whole lot of initial decision-making. I believe it’s the project leader’s responsibility to be undemocratic and make the decision about what channels to use, define clearly what each channel will be used for, and how various categories of information are communicated. If this is part of the project planning up front, it will save a lot of rework from confusion or miscommunication later on.

When remote working goes wrong

Isolation, miscommunication, lack of team identity and lopsided workloads are all potential pitfalls of virtual working.

Remote working is impersonal and can make workers feel isolated, even if they are working in the same organisation as others. People can listen to you in your meeting online, and then forget to keep their commitments when they don’t see you again afterwards. It can leave a teleworker with a sense of being forgotten or unimportant to the team. Policies need to be made to handle this at the project setup stage. For example, make use of free group chat apps, like WhatsApp or FaceTime, to have informal conversations. For some teams, a monthly off-topic virtual tea break or happy hour is a great way to build that sense of belonging. Since the pandemic, we’ve been having a lot of virtual coffees “just because” at Firehead.

Miscommunication often happens when people don’t employ their soft skills. Not getting back or not following up on meeting actions is common when working virtually. People may think they have been heard or listened to, but remote working adds an additional layer of distance, and resentments can easily build up if commitments aren’t kept. A year ago, an important project I’d done a lot of work for was cancelled because of a series of miscommunications and confusion over roles and expectations. This can be a costly experience for businesses and particularly painful when lack of soft skills is the reason.

Finally, beware of an uneven workload developing in virtual teamwork. A lot of people are new to online collaboration and communication tools and may be nervous to use them. For example, if your employees use team collaboration tools such as Dropbox, Google Hangouts, Google Docs, Confluence or Asana, you need to make them comfortable to share what they know instead of waiting for the more technically skilled members of the team to take most of the workload.

Similarly, with video conferencing software, be careful to make sure everyone is introduced to build team identity and also that they get a say. For example, you may have to show them how to ‘raise hands’ in larger meetings where muting by the host happens. And don’t stress about small talk before or at the end of a meeting. Virtual workers who do not build relationships with colleagues are unlikely to build relationships with their customers and clients. Plus, they are more likely to struggle with new processes and more likely to change jobs often.

Soft skills in summary

We are all working in a new landscape with entire organisations now working from home. The technology and communication tools are here. AI is here and revolutionising communication channels. And the coronavirus outbreak is changing our relationship with work – not just now but for the foreseeable future.

Ultimately, it is the human factors that are going to make the difference as we adapt to these new and challenging conditions.

Give your team time to adapt when introducing new tools.

And take a moment to think of the human-level soft skill that the current distanced work environment brings to future projects, work opportunities and careers.

This article was originally published in ISTC Communicator, Summer 2020.

CJ Walker will be discussing these issues as a guest presenter on Scott Abel’s Content Wrangler webinar on 22 October – details and signup here: Soft skills in the virtual workplace.

Image (CC): Alexandra Koch/Pixabay