By Hannah Paterson, Principal Consultant, Step5

Wild Code School_remote learning, woman learning to codeSoft skills don’t always get the attention they deserve. They’re not measurable, they’re subjective and they can all too easily be forgotten in the day-to-day pressures of the job.

However, having the right soft skills will not only help you support your team through this prolonged period of remote working, it will also make you a better, more sought-after IT professional.

There are endless definitions of soft skills, but the following are five of the most important:

  1. Communications

There’s no shortage of tools for remote collaboration and communication, but this can also be overwhelming. During the first lockdown in March, we stepped up the video calls as a team, but people found them draining and counterproductive. I now check in with everyone at the start of the day but otherwise trust them to get on with their job. And I’m only at the end of a phone or instant message if they need help or want to chat something through.

So much of effective communications is understanding how your team members like to work. If people are able to communicate in their preferred way, they’re much more likely to communicate openly.

  1. Flexibility

When people are working away from the office, you need to measure their performance in a different way. It’s not about how long people spend at their desk, it’s whether they’re effective and meet their objectives. Also, some people may be juggling work with other commitments, such as looking after young children or caring for elderly parents, or their home office set-up is perhaps far from ideal. They might not be able to work their standard hours, so it’s important to give them the flexibility to work when suits them best. By accommodating your team’s needs, you’re enabling them to better adapt to the current situation and to work more productively.

I try to lead by example. As a working mum of two under 5, late afternoon and evening are my most challenging times; I block them out of my calendar and let my team know that if I’m needed, the phone is the only route. I hope this shows them that working flexibly is both possible and accepted.

  1. Listening – for better problem solving

Being able to analyse a problem, identify a solution and implement it, however small, is a critical skill that we need to develop in ourselves and in our teams. The first step is to encourage an open dialogue with your team where nothing is off the agenda, and to really listen to what they have to say, coaxing them to explain problems in their own words and to work through their own solutions. This builds their trust in their abilities, making them more self-sufficient and able to solve problems on their own, which is so important right now when everyone is working apart.

  1. Empathy

Whether you’re dealing with a customer, a team member or a supplier, being able to see things from their perspective leads to better, more trusting relationships. Admittedly, this is more difficult when working remotely as you have fewer physical signs to observe. You can’t really tell how someone is feeling or coping with the current situation until you ask, which is why I build in extra time on calls for people to open up and ask questions. Ultimately, I try to impress on my team the importance of being kind to each other. You don’t know the circumstances the person on the other end of the video call is facing, so you shouldn’t be too hasty to judge if things are less than perfect. If Shadow Chancellor Annelise Dodds can be interrupted by her three-year-old mid TV interview, it can happen to the best of us!

  1. Social/ interpersonal skills

The most common thing I hear from people adapting to remote working is that they find it lonely because they lose the office banter and informal chats. Addressing this helps build team morale while developing core social skills. Team hangouts over a coffee or a Friday afternoon beer are a great way to bring people together. I like to keep these agenda-light; I provide a quick update on the week and let the conversation flow to maintain those all-important water cooler conversations. There’s no limit to how creative you can be – it’s all about tapping into employees’ shared interests. I’ve even read of one company hosting a virtual dog show as a way to maintain those vital human connections! In an office environment, the social side of work happens naturally. When your team is dispersed, you need to consciously encourage it.

They may sound fluffy, but soft skills are far from soft. They’re essential skills that are increasingly a key requirement for C-suite executives and professionals across the whole IT sector, as corroborated by LinkedIn’s Global Talent Trends 2019 report. It ranks soft skills and flexible working as the top two trends in acquiring and retaining talent.

This is not a short-term trend, and as we all get used to working remotely in an ever-changing world, IT professionals with well-honed essential skills will be much in demand.

About the author

Hannah PatersonHannah’s IT career has seen her work on ground-breaking public sector projects in the UK, US and Australia. She has crossed sectors from Defence to Healthcare with clients including public sector services supplier SSCL, the BBC and the National Health Service.

Prior to joining Step5, Hannah was Project Director for the New South Wales Department of Premier and Cabinet responsible for the review and consolidation of human services delivery with an annual budget of Aus$7 billion. She was previously at Worley Parsons, the global engineering and resources firm, leading the implementation of a global project and program implementation framework and supporting single platform.

Hannah is a Prince2 and MSP practitioner and uses Software Development Lifecycle, AGILE and PMBOK methodologies.


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