4 ways remote leaders can build soft skills

Maintaining relationships and building strong teams in a remote and hybrid work environment calls for extra effort on the part of leaders. Consider this expert advice to sharpen your soft skills
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Many IT leaders would agree: Building soft skills – communication, empathy, relationship building, and trust, for example – is far more manageable within the walls of the workplace. It makes watercooler catch-ups more probable, reading non-verbal cues more prominent, and developing the right workplace culture more accessible.

In today’s hybrid and remote work era, however, honing and mastering these essential skills isn’t so simple. “Many of these interactions just don’t happen anymore,” says Charlie Betzig, managing director at Heller Search Associates, a recruiting firm specializing in senior-level technology executives. “Now you have to pursue opportunities to focus on these skills and be more intentional about them.”

Here are four ways remote IT leaders can sharpen soft skills.

1. Prioritize post-meeting interactions

You just wrapped up a productive video meeting and are about to shift your attention to the work you need to be done that day. Before you do, Betzig suggests, pause and consider what this post-meeting moment may have looked like if you were in the office.

“If the meeting was in-person, you might walk into a coworker's office and ask them how they feel about a decision made or gauge how they felt the meeting went,” he says. “Don’t underestimate the value of the ‘meeting after the meeting’ – these are moments you need to recreate in a remote world.”

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These post-meeting interactions are important for a variety of reasons, he says. It allows leaders and team members to connect and celebrate wins, air and address concerns, and digest and discuss decisions. They’re also opportunities to improve soft skills.

“You don’t necessarily need to jump on another video call – just pick up the phone,” Betzig advises. “In the era of remote work, if you’re not working on a task or in an official meeting, you might not feel like you’re being productive. But recreating these watercooler moments is important to hone your soft skills – communication, empathy, and relationship building, for example.”

2. Proactively engage with your team

Gaining and maintaining trust within your team is critical for leaders, says Thomas Vick, regional director at IT staffing firm Robert Half Technology – but it’s one skill that has taken a back seat in remote settings. “Remote work has lent itself to fewer face-to-face interactions since people aren’t in an office setting as much,” he notes. “In some environments, teams might just be meeting once a week.”

When IT leaders fail to engage with their teams regularly, it’s more difficult to nurture a culture of trust. In these scenarios, the consequences can be significant, Vick says. For example, employee engagement can plummet, resulting in increased turnover and decreased productivity.

To hone trust-building skills, leaders must engage with their teams. This means regularly scheduling one-on-one check-ins with individuals or holding office hours, for example. “Your day can be hectic, and it’s easy to get caught up in that,” Vick says. “You want your team to feel heard and understood. That’s the foundation for trust.”

When IT leaders fail to engage with their teams regularly, it’s more difficult to nurture a culture of trust.

3. Be fully present

It’s easy for attention to wane during video calls when you’re in the comfort of your own home, Betzig says. “I’ve seen high-level executives yawn, slurp soup, and multitask during important meetings. Those aren’t things you’d ever do in the boardroom, and they don’t make other people on the call feel great.”

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Being fully present – whether during a phone or video call – is a skill that Betzig says leaders need to revisit. “You need to be focused on the conversation, have your eyes on one screen, and be attentive and present when other people are talking,” he says. “Just because you’re on video doesn’t mean it’s a half-meeting – it’s a full meeting. These are simple things, but they’re easier said than done.”

To be more present and focused, close any unnecessary browser tabs and aim to minimize other distractions, such as from pets, family members, and chat or text messages. Resist the urge to check email during meetings, and be aware of your body language, including your posture. Betzig says focusing on these conscious and unconscious communication cues will help you listen better, focus, and engage, and also exude respect for your colleagues and team members you’re meeting with.

4. Seek out in-person opportunities

While finding strategies to fine-tune soft skills in a remote environment is essential, pursuing in-person interactions is still invaluable, Vick says. When budgets permit, bring your team together in person to reconnect. This time together helps you to build trust, relationships, camaraderie, and better communication.

Vick recommends that IT leaders pursue in-person opportunities to hone soft skills through local networking and industry groups. “Meet new people and have conversations with individuals. The more you practice the skills you need to work on, the more it will translate to your team in a remote setting.”

[ Leading CIOs are reimagining the nature of work while strengthening organizational resilience. Learn 4 key digital transformation leadership priorities in a new report from Harvard Business Review Analytic Services. ]

Kristin Burnham is a reporter and editor covering IT leadership, business technology, and online privacy and security.