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Top Skills for the Hybrid and Digital Workplace

July 26, 2021 Digital Workplace
scott clark
By Scott Clark

The move to the remote and hybrid workplace shifted how companies operate. It also put a spotlight on the skills required to do the job. Even before the rise of remote and hybrid working strategies, the mix of skills needed to thrive in the digital workplace was under the microscope.

According to the World Economic Forum, more than 1 billion people will need to reskill by 2030 in order to stay relevant, said Lars Hyland, chief learning officer at  Totara Learning, a provider of enterprise learning, engagement and performance management technology. Digital transformation has created the need for a wide range of skills, he said, including things like resilience and stress tolerance, deeper understanding and use of smart technology, and an increased emphasis on communication, collaboration and creativity.

Remote and hybrid work forced a shift in priorities and investment. But big questions remain: What's the balance of hard technical skills, such as coding and project management, with so-called soft skills, such as influencing and communication? And, equally importantly, what are actionable ways employees can develop these skills?

Effective Leadership Skills Are Key to Success

Not surprisingly for a time of disruption and crisis, the majority of the skills needed are those required to effectively lead and manage. The oft-used term “soft skills” refers to a set of social, emotional and communication skills and character and personality traits that are crucial for developing and maintaining relationships,  effectively expressing oneself, inspiring confidence and trust, and being an effective leader. 

"Managing a hybrid team requires a level of leadership that not all managers possess," said Teresa Hopke, CEO of Talking Talent, a global coaching firm. "Remote work often shines a spotlight on leadership deficiencies because it requires managers to treat their team like adults by trusting them to get their work done."

Transparency is also vital because it allows employees to obtain a true picture of the company, its leaders and managers. “It requires managers to get clear about their expectations and communicate those in a way that the employee fully understands and is on board with," Hopke said. "It requires deliberateness around creating an inclusive culture where people at the office as well as working from home are considered for opportunities and included in important meetings. It requires an intentional approach to relationship building and getting to know employees in order to build virtual relationship capital. And it requires managers to be more human-centered in their leadership approach.”

Connecting with employees in meaningful and compassionate ways, along with building and rebuilding interpersonal connections and relationships is essentially about creating a human connection between leaders, managers and employees. Hopke said leaders need to focus on honing those human skills.

"They need to learn to be more curious, more compassionate, more empathetic, more vulnerable," she said. "They need to learn how to slow down and pay attention to body language and to pick up on nuances of conversations."

Related Article: The 2 Critical Leadership Skills for the Digital Workplace

Building Connection in the Remote and Hybrid Workplace

Human skills are also the key to solving one of the biggest problems in the remote and hybrid workplace: workers' feeling of isolation. When some employees are working from home and others are together in the office, the input of remote workers may get lost or ignored. The solution requires a specific set of leadership skills that manager should take time to learn.

“They need to learn how to plan ahead and send out agendas for meetings so that people who are more introverted or processors of information have an opportunity to prepare for meetings," Hopke said. "They need to check in with people after meetings and conversations to ensure they felt heard and were able to share."

Group or one-on-one coaching are good ways to develop leaders' skills in these areas, she added.

Remote working has also made it especially important to focus on individual employee well-being, Hyland said. “It can be more difficult to identify a decline in an employee's wellbeing when they are not physically present, so managers should be trained to look out for signs such as reduced productivity, missing deadlines, taking lots of time off at short notice and a lack of engagement in meetings," he said.

Focus on Drivers of Positive Employee Experience

Empathy, vulnerability and compassion have always been important in relationships, but after the last year they are more important than ever, especially for business leaders. A Businessolver report from 2019 revealed that 82 percent of employees would consider quitting their jobs for an employer that was more empathetic.

“People are also looking for understanding and support for whatever their personal situation might be,” said Hopke. “They are willing to walk away from managers who treat them without respect because they’ve seen that life is fragile and they are eager to feel appreciated, respected and supported at their work and outside of work."

The whole concept of employee experience, a big priority for many organizations coming out of the pandemic, is based around learning the drivers of behaviors, needs and emotions of employees.

“The pandemic has really caused people to assess what matters most to them and many people are looking to be connected to purpose when it comes to their work,” said Hopke. “Managers need to find out what makes their people tick and work to help them connect to the values of the organization and find meaning in the work they do.” 

Related Article: Employee Experience Isn't Just HR's Job — It's IT's Job, Too

Emotional Intelligence Courses on the Rise

Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand, use and manage one’s own emotions in positive ways in order to empathize with others, relieve stress, overcome challenges, defuse conflict and communicate more effectively.

Michelle Boockoff-Bajdek, chief marketing officer at Skillsoft, a global digital learning company, said her company examined the learning behaviors of more than 1.1 million learners in December 2020. Their research revealed dramatic increases in people taking courses on emotional intelligence, which saw a 278-fold increase, the greatest increase of all courses that were offered. 

Other courses which saw large increases included courses on using Microsoft Teams (189x increase), virtual collaboration (62x increase) and trust building (4x increase). All of these courses teach skills that are valuable for those working in the hybrid workplace. Other courses that became more popular during the COVID-19 pandemic included contributing as a virtual team member, and communicating with confidence.

Related Article: Why Soft Skills Matter and How to Develop Them

Building Trust as a Digital Skill

With so many employees working remotely, even in a hybrid model of part-time remote work, managers and leaders have had to trust employees to do what needs to be done without watching over their backs.

Conversely, employees that have not had the option of meeting with managers face to face have had to trust they are also being transparent about what is expected of them, how happy they are with the job that is being done, and that the flexible workplace is still satisfying the requirements of the job. 

“With less managerial oversight, many organizations have switched their priorities from cultures of close monitoring and surveillance to empowering employees to work and develop independently,” said Hyland.

“Employees have less face-to-face time with their managers and teammates, meaning they have had to manage their own time and communications, potentially for the first time ever. There has also been an awakening that productivity can in fact improve when people are offered the flexibility to work when and where they want.”

Communication Skills Are Paramount

Effective communicators enable employees to feel engaged, personally satisfied, and effective at working as part of a team even if they are doing so remotely. Communicating effectively over text or email is more challenging than doing so face to face, and for many people, these skills do not develop naturally and must be learned and practiced. 

“In the immediate term, there is an ongoing adjustment to working remotely and redefining the role of the office as a collaborative meeting space,” Hyland said. “Communicating effectively at a distance both synchronously (meetings) and asynchronously (capturing information and sharing as part of a searchable record) is entirely possible with the right skills and systems in place.” 

Employees have to learn how to communicate online, adjusting their cadence, tone and the channels used, Hyland said, and managers can shift to more frequent online performance check-ins alongside in-person meetups.

"These may only be 15- or 30-minute conversations every week or month, but they help keep teams functioning and performing at the highest possible level in challenging circumstances,” he said.

Continuous Learning and Adaptability

Companies need to cultivate and encourage a culture of continual learning, growth, and adaptability. Not only do Millennials and Generation X employees demand ongoing training and career development opportunities, companies with such a culture are more resilient, and are better prepared to handle any sort of crisis or setback.

“Critically, we will all need to be comfortable with learning and relearning new skills continuously,” said Hyland. “Adaptability is the primary characteristic of success in the new world of work. As the last 18 months have shown us, precipitated by the global pandemic, the ability to move with the times and stay on top of rapid change is critical, and will only become more important in the coming months and years.”

Hard skills, such as software development and the use of emerging technologies such as green technologies and artificial intelligence continue to evolve, said Hyland. Those sorts of skills will always be vital, but both companies and employees need to be aware that these skills change much faster than soft skills and are themselves subject to automation.

“That said, everyone will need to continually learn new technical skills to use tools productively and to critically assess their output (AI is subject to bias, in similar ways to humans),” Hyland said.

Soft skills, Hyland added, are evergreen, that is, they are easy to activate by their very nature and are immediately useful. That doesn’t mean that if one doesn’t already have them, they are easy to acquire. They must be practiced and developed over time in order to be sharp, just like any other skill.

“The key to maintaining soft skills is to adapt with the times. A strong leader today can remain a strong leader throughout their career as long as they adapt to the changing circumstances, anticipate change and act early,” said Hyland. “In the future, all roles will have a mix of hard technical skills with a growing emphasis on softer transferable skills that will facilitate career development and mobility.”

Companies can support this type of continuous learning and career development by fostering an environment ripe for learning, Boockoff-Bajdek said.

"From offering mentorship programs, to various learning solutions and on-the-job training, companies can help create a skilled and future fit workforce and help employees drive change, achieve goals and stay ahead of the curve,” she said.

Keys to Developing Soft and Hard Skills

Developing both hard and soft skills requires both formal and informal learning, with a focus on practicing the skills in actual work scenarios, said Hyland. Structured, interactive online courses can help train technical skills, such as coding or operating machinery, and lay the foundation for soft skills.

"Informal learning supplements the formal learning — for instance, participants in a course to learn Python coding can join a dedicated online workspace where they can collaborate and solve problems with fellow learners, share code and learn through rapid iteration,” he said.

Just as reading a textbook will not teach a person how to code without spending actual time coding, soft skills need to be practiced regularly with others in order to become effective and genuine. Soft skill development happens primarily through real-life experiences and interactions such as role play, mentoring and coaching.

“Creative training solutions that use interactive videos, branching scenarios, simulations or even virtual reality can help develop skills such as creativity, problem solving and active listening, and may be assessed through observations or interactions with managers and expert peers,” Hyland said.

These types of initiatives bring employee experience together with learning, engagement and performance management to accelerate new skill acquisition and application for the benefit of the individual, team and the organization. In the hybrid workplace, those skills are not only technical, but also soft skills that create interpersonal relationships that foster and encourage team building, innovation, loyalty and commitment. By encouraging development and practice of these skills from the top down, and cultivating a culture of continual learning, companies increase the chances of being valued, profitable and resilient for whatever the future brings. 


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