Maintaining Soft Skills in Remote Work Environments

The COVID-19 pandemic flipped almost every single industry on its head. Even the few sectors of the business world that made money due to the pandemic (delivery services, cleaning supplies, etc.) still had to navigate an ever-changing influx of rules and regulations aimed at slowing the spread of the virus.

For many businesses, this meant dealing with shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders, and adapting their employees to a fully remote workplace. As the COVID clock ticks past 18 months, many of these companies are seeing some bright spots relative to the remote work settings they were forced to adopt. However, some difficulties still exist around communication and other soft skills.

Financially, many companies realized that employees working from home meant less money spent on office space and supplies. From a productivity standpoint, many businesses also were surprised to see increases in productivity from their team members who were working from home.

From an HR and project management standpoint, though, the remote office has caused a lot of headaches. Communication isn’t lessened while working in a remote setting, but interpersonal skills are certainly different when discussing things digitally as opposed to in-person.

Many companies expect to continue to allow fully or partial remote work options, as the pros seem to outnumber the cons, but for those employees who will be staying home, it will be important to develop a strong set of soft skills that can translate to the remote workplace. Issues involving communication can cause much bigger problems relative to a company’s goals. The following tips will help you polish up your soft skills so you can help your team succeed in the remote workplace.

Business Decorum and Behavior

There are many benefits that remote employees reference when asked about work-from-home perks, but the comfort and stress relief that come with being home are at the top of many people’s lists. Although wearing shoes might not be required, there are still plenty of practices to follow when conducting yourself in a professional manner in a remote work setting. Here are some etiquette tips:

  • Overcommunicate – There’s no peeking over a cubicle to confirm something from the morning meeting, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t clarify any questions you may have. Turnaround time can be a bit longer, but waiting for an electronic reply is less time wasted than working on something for days, only to realize you were doing the wrong thing.
  • Zoom/teleconference practices – Find a quiet area, always state your name before speaking, mute yourself whenever possible and frequently ask quieter team members if they’d like to contribute anything.
  • Make your availability known – From down time to “do not disturb” to “making copies,” posting your availability helps prevent situations where a team member is trying to contact you and doesn’t know why you’re not responding, which can cause can prompt stress or suspicion.
  • Comprehensive subject lines – People are busy. When sending an email or tagging a team member on a project, be clear about what your message is about. Some things are more important than others, and allowing the receiver to quickly determine that is good etiquette.

    Connect (Socially)

    In addition to losing the “peeking over the cubicle” communication, working remotely tends to separate and isolate team members socially a lot more than the brick-and-mortar office does. Scheduling things such as virtual happy hours, board games and just meetings where work isn’t discussed helps build team unity. It is important for teams to interact socially to build trust and avoid miscommunications and disagreements.

    Work versions of social events, such as show-and-tell, can also be beneficial. These events serve as a way to get to know team members and increase team focus on diversity, inclusion, and cultural awareness.

    Self-Discipline and Initiative

    It doesn’t matter if you live alone, with 10 roommates in a hostel, or in a house with six children running around… there are going to be distractions in a remote work environment that don’t exist in the office setting. Distractions can lead to poor performance and a lack of focus, which are bad habits to develop.

    The first step to staying focused at home is limiting your distractions. Create a home workspace that truly makes you feel like you’ve gone to work (because you have), and build a routine that has the same aspects of the routine you used when getting ready for your commute. Here are some ideas for making your home office an easier place to focus:

  • Declutter – You may have had a small desk at the office, but you’re home now, so there’s no excuse. Anything you can see can be a distraction, so keep your workspace nice and tidy.
  • Plants – Plants are therapeutic and calming. Eyes need a break from a screen, and plants need brief moments of attention (for feeding or clipping), but aren’t things that are going to pull you in for hours like a book. This makes tending to plants perfect for a quick break.
  • Lighting – Keep your space well-lit. Office lamps are bright for a reason. They keep you awake, and help you stay motivated.
  • Photos – Even if your family is literally in the other room, photos at the desk can always be motivators when you don’t want to keep working.
  • Comfort – Many companies will offer to reimburse you for purchases you make to increase your work-related comfort, so make sure you have a nice chair, ergonomic keyboard, and second monitor to maximize your work potential.

    Eating regularly should also be a part of your schedule, and although it may be easier to eat and work while at home, you still need to take breaks. A healthy meal serves as both a break and as literal fuel to keep you going through the second half of your workday.

    Self-rewards are also important, as the separation from team members can result in less positive reinforcement. Reward yourself for your accomplishments, which can help you stay motivated.

    Organization

    What brings all of these professional soft skills together is organization. In the normal office setting there are a lot more opportunities to lean on the organizational practices of others. At home, it’s squarely on your shoulders to know what you need to be doing and when.

    Many online programs exist to help with workflow, and you can use them in your daily life as well. Asana and Trello are two popular options as they allow users to schedule meetings, track project progress in easy-to-read ways, communicate quickly with instant messenger services, and hold team members accountable with clear due dates and task assignments.

    Being well-organized allows for even more effectiveness in the remote workplace, which makes focusing on other essential soft skills, such as decorum, self-discipline, and initiative easier. Working remotely can be challenging, especially for those who only worked in an office before the COVID-19 pandemic. Remote teams will continue to thrive as long as remote workers maintain professional etiquette and continue to practice interpersonal skills.

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