The Importance of “Soft” Skills in the Digital Age
First, I hate the term “soft” skills. I prefer we call them essential or non-technical skills or even essential non-technical skills, as that would be more accurate and not have implications about difficulty. I firmly believe these skills are crucial even in normal times. As the year wears on and there’s no end in sight for a remote workforce, I want to take a few moments to recognize the importance of these non-technical skills in this environment. There are pros and cons to working remotely (as we can all attest to at this point), even if you haven’t worked from home for years, as I have. We’ve all seen the memes and the jokes about how introverts vs. extroverts are coping at home, and I think the reality is far less simple.
What Qualifies as a “Soft” Skill?
Generally, any skill enabling better interaction with people can be considered a “soft” skill. These types of skills can come naturally depending on your personality but can be very hard to learn. I often talk about these skills as almost necessary, but certainly helpful, for progressing your career in IT. Some examples of these skills are communication, collaboration, teamwork, adaptability, problem solving, leadership, and customer service. These skills foster improvements in relationships with your management, customers, and teammates and aren’t limited to the ones listed above. Improvements in your non-technical skills will also improve your chances of being noticed for advancement and additional responsibilities.
How to Translate These Skills Across the Virtual Environment
The big question: How do these skills come into play when you’re no longer in the same room, or even in the same building, as your coworkers? Coming from a decade of experience in a remote work environment and my previous role with a fully distributed team, I know how much more difficult it can be to make yourself and your work seen and, sometimes, it makes it much more difficult to work with people. This can partly be blamed on things like the ease of sending a message via chat when you can’t stop by someone’s office and not being able to read facial expressions or body language. That only emphasizes the importance of good communication skills, especially written. However, with camera-on virtual meetings, we can’t forget verbal communication as well as facial expression. The instinct of many IT pros of my acquaintance is to turn their camera off or stay muted the entire meeting, but this means you go unseen and unheard.
Collaboration is key to moving forward and can be easier right now than ever. Opening communication channels is easy, but it’s integral to maintain them and help foster an environment conducive to the sharing of ideas. Text-based communications can be especially tricky because the reader will be inferring tone and can bring unintended connotations to your words. We’ve all gotten a text from someone we care about and read WAY more into it than was intended… especially if we had recently been in an argument (couples, you know what I’m talking about). Well, the same thing can happen at work and have unintentional consequences, so choose your words wisely and think about the audience receiving those words. You also want to make sure you’re open to the ideas of others. Different perspectives make collaboration great, but ideas that are too different can cause strife and stress—consider asking someone uninvolved to moderate if needed.
“Let’s Do ‘Get Help.’ Come On, You Love It.”—Thor
All kidding aside, don’t be afraid to work on those non-technical skills just as you do your technical skills. As important as your next technical certification is, consider making time for a class on better business communication. Working in as part of a fully distributed team has challenges especially caused by the “Out of sight, out of mind” mentality. Those interactions with our colleagues are important, and I’m not talking about Twitter. Ask for feedback, and don’t be afraid to give constructive criticism where warranted—tactfully—so we can all have a better time. Think back to the times your day was made by someone randomly reaching out to ask you a question based on your expertise, or someone you used to sit next to at the office asking how you are. Reciprocating and initiating those communications have a big impact on all of us.
This year has been a stressful one—and it’s not over yet—so we can all use a little more work on our “soft” skills. A little empathy, good communication, collaboration, and teamwork all add up to a recipe for success. All these things can be achieved with tiny changes in your day and can improve your, and others’, work day. Start by actively participating in your next team call (tactfully) and see where it takes you.