Since early 2020 the way we have become obligated to work due to the Coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdowns has placed additional pressure on corporate leaders. Navigating the new management skills required to run hybrid teams – some employees working from the office while others are home-based – is incredibly difficult, even without the other responsibilities top leaders need to contend with.
Hybrid working has proved popular with many employees, letting them split their time between working from home and working from the office, and it appears that this new form of working is here to stay even when the threat from the pandemic has receded.
When you’re working in a virtual environment, as is inevitable as the manager of a hybrid workforce, you’ll need to develop specific skills, soft skills, that will let you lead a diverse workforce wherever they’re based. Soft skills are a combination of people skills, social skills, communication skills, social intelligence and emotional intelligence that are becoming as important, if not more so, than hard skills.
Why are soft skills important?
Soft skills are becoming increasingly important for organisations that want to add additional value to their business. A study by Wonderlic found that 93% of hiring leaders said that soft skills were either essential or very important elements when making hiring decisions.
Further, the National Association of Colleges and Employers Survey identified that employers emphasised leadership and the ability to work in a team as more valuable and desirable than analytical and quantitative skills. Burning Glass analysed millions of US job postings and found that one in three of the required skills was a soft skill, even in the most technical career areas.
Finding talent with the right mix of soft skills is difficult as they are challenging to identify at interview. This was reinforced by a LinkedIn Workplace Learning Report that cited soft skills as the top training priority, and 59% of hiring managers believe that it’s difficult to find candidates with the right soft skills.
As a leader of a hybrid team, two of the most important soft skills you need to learn are teamwork and communication, both of which are seen as weak points for many organisations, causing problems with performance and productivity. In fact, Gallups State of the American Workplace report found that the majority of employees believed that an organisation’s project performance would improve if teams worked more collaboratively. Additionally, successful collaboration is closely tied to good communication skills, including actively listening to colleagues and willingness to engage in conflict resolution that arises out of miscommunication.
A soft skill that is valued in leaders is compassion. Teams tend to thrive when they believe that their manager cares about them, and research has shown that organisations with more compassionate leaders excel at collaboration, another crucial soft skill identified earlier. According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, 91% of over 1000 leaders surveyed said compassion was important for leadership, and 80% would like to enhance their compassion.
Additionally, effective communication and other soft skills that enhance interpersonal relationships, essential to maintaining workplace cohesion, all require compassion in leadership.
The soft skills required and how to develop them
Since the pandemic lockdowns, remote and hybrid working have become established as a popular way of working and are here to stay. However, for this to be a successful adaptation to working life, ongoing well-being and employee engagement are essential and will require a boost to leaders’ soft skills.
Organisational psychologist Adam Grant recently underscored the challenges of the hybrid era when he posted on social media, “The irony of ‘soft skills’ is that they’re often hardest to master. Leadership, communication, collaboration, creativity, and adaptability may not be technical, but they’re increasingly vital. Behavioural, social, and emotional skills are what make humans indispensable.”
Crystal Lim-Lange, CEO of the Singapore based training firm Forest Wolfe’s approach is the idea that soft skills can be a learnt skill and learning them can be especially important for leaders and managers adapting to managing hybrid teams.
Make connection and conversation intentional
When your employees have adopted hybrid work, you’ll need to plan and make time to connect with your team, whether it’s for a casual chat or a scheduled one-on-one conversation.
Importantly during video calls or shared time at the office, it’s vital that you know your own stress levels and emotions and identify whether you can be fully engaged or should reschedule to give your employee all of your time and attention.
Plan the key questions that you want to ask and the priorities you need to review, then after the call or meeting, take the time to reflect on your discussion, then plan and follow through on the next steps.
If you want your employees to open up to you so that you can make a clear and honest assessment of how they’re doing, you need to establish trust.
To build and establish that trust, Crystal Lim-Lange recommends that you talk about your own struggles and the problems you’ve encountered over the previous week.
“If you really want people to be vulnerable and authentic about what they can do and what they cannot do,” Crystal says, “you cannot insist on having a superhuman persona.” For example, you might share, “This week, I was really overwhelmed.” Or “I’m struggling with work-life balance given some difficult priorities at home,” or “I’m stuck on this problem and feeling frustrated and burned out.”
However, if you can’t think of a weakness to share, don’t make one up; perhaps work on your own self-awareness, and then when you’ve mastered opening up, focus on listening rather than talking.
As a leader of a hybrid team, it is crucial to remember that everyone needs the time, space, and encouragement to protect their peace of mind and learn new skills, including you.
Crystal particularly likes companies that offer training and support for learning mindfulness and self-awareness. She says, “It is this sense of being able to train your brain to overcome its natural tendency to want to be distracted,” she says. “We are living in the age of distractions, and people now need to learn the skills of taking back control over their own attention spans.”
In fact, she firmly believes that learning is a form of self-care as you grow and take care of yourself. As a result, the happiest people are engaged and curious and don’t just think about a to-do list but also a to-learn list and a to-be list as well.
Improving your soft skills will enhance your leadership skills and allow you to get the best from your remote and hybrid teams.
If you’re a confident communicator who is prepared to expose their own vulnerabilities, then inevitably, your team will reciprocate, and you’ll have a better understanding of their issues which will let you become the manager they need to be at their most effective and productive, wherever they’re working.