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Three soft skills leaders need for hybrid work environments

Whether the future is remote-first or hybrid, the past year of change has shown that it is more important than ever to stay focused on these soft skills.

Three soft skills leaders need for hybrid work environments
[Source Photo: Kiattisak/Adobe Stock]
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Microsoft calls it “the next great disruption.” Gensler calls it “the new 9-to-5.” And more and more organizations, from Citigroup to Ford, are embracing it. As life begins to somewhat return to normal, the buzz around hybrid models as the future of work is getting louder every day.

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Multiple surveys show that the majority of us don’t ever want to return to an office full time. That’s a weighty challenge for many organizations. Balancing physical safety, personal work preferences, and organizational productivity is difficult. And hybrid work models are mostly new territory for leaders.

Research from Gartner Inc. found that among the challenges of managing a hybrid workforce, one-third of business leaders are most concerned with maintaining corporate culture, and 13% have concerns about creating parity between the remote and in-office experience. These are valid concerns.

The good news is that we’ve learned a lot over the last year about managing our day-to-day work while working from locations other than a physical office building. Organization-level initiatives—reviews, training, and the like—have all continued to move forward in work-from-anywhere environments.

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But I believe the biggest learning of all has been the importance of soft skills—empathy, inclusivity, and communication, for example. As an organizational psychologist, I’ve studied these soft skills for years. They create the backbone of any organization, and in times of change (especially like the one we’re experiencing right now), they are fundamental to the health and stability of our teams.

Whether you’re leading a 10-person team or a Fortune 500 enterprise, here are the three soft skills you need to help employees transition into a hybrid work environment.

ABILITY TO BUILD TRUST

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Google’s landmark study on psychological safety showed us just how important safety is for high-performing teams. Creating a psychologically safe work environment means team members feel comfortable speaking up, proposing creative ideas, and advocating for more change without the fear of being penalized or punished. So what can we do in a hybrid environment to reinforce it?

The most important first step is building trust within your team. This is challenging when you’re not all physically together, and leaders will need to work extra hard to ensure remote workers don’t feel left out of important conversations or decision-making, which can erode trust.

Take the time to get to know your teammates personally, and make sure they feel appreciated for who they are and what they add to the team. Make an effort to celebrate wins, both big and small. And look for new ways technology can support safety. You want to create the feeling of a shared space where people can come together for meetings or team bonding activities.

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INCLUSIVE LEADERSHIP

Often feelings of exclusion are magnified in a work environment when team members are not physically together and cannot be seen daily. Organizations have to take an active role in building an inclusive environment where all team members are heard and feel valued, especially in a hybrid work model. As a recent McKinsey paper eloquently stated, “An inclusive work environment doesn’t just happen; it requires sustained effort.”

The first step is self-awareness. Every leader needs to take a hard look at themselves and their organization and ask the difficult questions: Are we treating every individual equally and with respect? Do we celebrate diversity of opinion and experience? Are we pushing ourselves to keep learning? As leaders, we must encourage participation and development at every level of the organization.

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This is even more important in a hybrid environment. It is our job to look for voices that might not be heard and promote them. Advocate for the professional development and promotion of all employees, whether they’re in the office every day or once a month. And if your organization has employee resource groups (ERGs), make sure they are active right now. Diverse perspectives make teams strong.

OPEN COMMUNICATION

The question I often hear from leaders adapting to remote work environments is: How do I recreate the impromptu watercooler moments that happen within my organization? These moments are incredibly important to workplace culture. A study conducted at the University of California, Santa Cruz found that the reciprocity that comes with making small talk can create a meaningful connection between two people and result in increased task enjoyment.

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Recreating these moments in a hybrid environment will be no small feat. Part of the challenge will be encouraging regular communication—scheduling more frequent meetings, making sure to check in on team members working from home more often, and even calendaring watercooler breaks for your team or company —that includes those in the office and those logging in from other locations.

You can use your chosen technology platform here as well. Whether it’s through virtual technology or commonly used collaboration tools like Zoom and Slack, the key is encouraging and promoting serendipitous encounters that spark ideas and creativity. Imagine an environment where you can run into a teammate in a hallway, hang out in a common area with others, or meet up in someone’s office—no matter where you’re physically located.

Whether the future is remote-first or hybrid, the past year of change has shown that it is more important than ever to stay focused on these soft skills. Leaders need to reinforce their importance with teams. Organizations need to ensure they are training for them. And we all need to continue looking at new ways technology can help promote them.

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Alex Howland, Ph.D., is President and Co-Founder of Virbela, an immersive virtual world platform for work, events and education.