The CDC’s announcement last month made it official: Corporate America is ready to return to the office. While many of us built up our digital skills while working from home, it could be an awkward transition back to our daily watercooler moments.
We’ve spent more than a year interacting with coworkers and clients through a computer screen. Most of us haven’t held eye contact with them or had a conversation that didn’t include lagging or that frequent Zoom reminder, “you’re on mute.”
The good news is it doesn’t have to be awkward. We flexed and grew some core soft skills during the pandemic-induced virtual work world. And these same skills can really make a difference as we shake off the in-person cobwebs. If we bring them back into the office and our new world of hybrid work, they’ll help us innovate and collaborate in better, smarter ways.
From my professional experience, three particular skills stand out. Maintain them, build on them, and make them work for your business as we embark on the great migration back to the office.
Inclusivity of a deeper kind
In the remote world, we relied on virtual whiteboards, chat-based communication, and productivity hacks. This all allowed us to extend the reach of who gets to be involved in work and where we draw expertise from. People who might never have contributed to something in the past weren’t limited by a location, team assignment, or function.
We saw this with one of our clients when an employee in their Texas location had the breakthrough insight that catapulted their Ohio-based team to success. We had 70 people from six different locations across the U.S. working together. They would have never been in a “room” together pre-pandemic. But we created structured virtual sessions that allowed diverse experience and expertise to help tackle the challenges the Ohio team faced.
Don’t let these sort of cross-department collaborations vanish just because some people are back in the office. Continue using virtual collaboration tools and techniques to promote different ways of contributing and giving meaningful input. You’ll benefit from this wider range of people you can lean on and be able to work faster. Look at who you bring into your conversations, meetings, and team rosters. Don’t just turn to the people in your immediate vicinity or fall back to the usual suspects; instead, opt to bring in colleagues who are not in the office and work remotely three states away.
Bold ideas come from engaging every perspective
When you make a concerted effort to include diverse perspectives that might be missed otherwise, it can drive smarter decision-making. Speaking your ideas—even the wildest ones—turns out to be easier to do in a remote setting for many. Introverts can participate through chats in video meetings and unmute themselves even if their faces are off camera.
On a recent client project, one quiet employee told us she normally wants to hide under her desk in meetings, so she can be as inconspicuous as possible. But she flourished in a virtual environment and contributed crucial solutions during our working group meetings. She even stepped into a high visibility role, presenting the team’s collective pitch to leadership. She told us the remote experience transformed her attitude towards engaging with her teammates.
In person, there are always louder voices and people who don’t speak up enough. Don’t risk missing out on what could be your strongest idea because it’s from the person who isn’t comfortable speaking up. Therefore, encouraging people to participate however is easiest for them—including staying virtual and bypassing uncomfortable in-person moments.
Continue to proactively use chat and breakout groups when more people are back in the office to uplift quieter voices. There’s no reason virtual whiteboards and collaborative platforms have to take a backseat in the office. In fact, many people noticed they had the boldest ideas using them.
Asynchronous work is your friend
Think about the work you were able to do better and faster virtually—even though some people worked early hours, others worked late and everything in between. We all got very comfortable with technology and working asynchronously. At first, many of us grumbled about what felt like disjointed collaboration. But, within a short time, we realized it just works. People contribute more when they’re at their best. One person can work on one piece of a project at one moment in time and others can do the same.
Don’t leave this new kind of engagement with work and each other at the dining room table. Working together, apart, is feasible and productive. Make those virtual progress boards permanent, even when you’re in person. Take the agile practices you’ve adopted and create parallel processes for small groups to work asynchronously. Then come back together to discuss progress and next steps. The results and collaboration will be stronger if you don’t go back to old habits and ways of working.
Each transition for the pandemic—whether going remote or returning to in-person—will create upheaval. It’s important we keep listening, learning, and building our soft skills. Bridging the gap between the ways we worked during the heart of the pandemic and the next version of the working world means taking the good things back to the watercooler with you.
Shirin Trehan Toor is the director of PricewaterhouseCoopers’ BXT Center of Excellence, as well as a collaborative design specialist who helps teams and leadership think in creative ways.