Soft Skills For First Time Managers In The Digital Age

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Soft skills have always been critical to leadership success, but in a modern digital work environment, new managers must recalibrate.

Soft skills such as communication, adaptation, and teamwork have always been crucial for new managers from any industry to succeed. In 2019, however, managers face many new challenges. Shifting demographics, changing cultural norms, and our increasing reliance on digital technologies in the workplace have changed how managers and employees interact, sometimes limiting the impact of traditional soft skills.

Let’s take a look at some of the soft skills all new managers will require to succeed today. 

Communicating with remote employees

Today’s workplaces require fewer people to come into a physical office than ever before. In America alone, 22% of employees work from home, while 40% to 50% complete some level of remote work each year. These figures are expected to increase in the years ahead, which will create unique communication challenges. Chat messages, emails, and even live phone calls lack body language cues and nuances that are easily conveyed in-person.

Communication is perhaps the most important soft skill any person — whether a team leader or individual contributor — can cultivate in their professional lives. Thankfully, there are a variety of ways to adapt communication techniques to suit modern digital workplaces. Here at Sounding Board, we use Slack to keep in touch with fellow employees and clients alike. Video software like Google Meet lets team members conduct visual presentations and one-on-one meetings. The key is to establish new communication norms with your team, such as:

  • Standardized communication practices: Will tasks be assigned by email or through product management tools, like Asana? Should co-workers ask for assistance via Slack chat or a Google Hangouts message? New managers must standardize communication practices to ensure team members aren’t juggling multiple channels at once.
  • Avoid bombarding employees with messages: Few employees will appreciate getting a dozen chat messages for something that could have been addressed in a single email. There’s always a place for brief messages, but try to distill communications into the most digestible format.
  • Focus on clarity above all else: It’s easy to miss subtle details when reading text messages. Account for this by sending clear, easy-to-understand directives that leave little room for error.

Of course, digital communication is a two-way street. New managers should resist the urge to use technology solely to make directives. Be sure to listen to feedback as well. Whatever your communication channel, create opportunities for employees to share thoughts on current projects and initiatives. Remember to apply active listening principles by reiterating key points to ensure everyone involved is on the same page.

If handled correctly, digital communications can go beyond individual team members to improve the entire work culture.

Cultivating a strong team culture

Even remote employees, or those from different departments, ought to have a shared work culture. As a manager, a key soft skill will be cultivating that culture across those divides. The same digital technologies that let us communicate instantly can also be used to foster workplace camaraderie and support. When establishing these channels, consciously consider the type of culture you hope to create. In doing so, you can build powerful working relationships that enhance organizational performance.

A crucial ingredient for any positive work culture, physical or digital, is avenues for engagement. Remote employees can still engage with managers through a variety of channels, such as email, Slack chats, and video conferences. The good news is the latest generation of workers are used to electronic connections — the job of the manager is to adapt work culture principles into digital settings.

Listening skills, for example, can still play a huge role in digital communications. Instead of rushing to speak or type out a directive, take the time to listen to team members. See what you can learn about their perspective and respond in ways that addressed their needs. Show employees that you value their contributions and give them opportunities to suggest improvements or ask for help overcoming blockers.

With so many digital communication channels at our fingertips, work-life balance is more important than ever. New managers should acknowledge that digital workplaces are still workplaces for human beings: employees need opportunities to celebrate work victories, acknowledge special occasions, and blow off steam with “water cooler” talk — even if just in chat rooms. What’s more, team members are just as likely to get sick, respond to emergencies, and face out-of-work challenges as local employees. Leaders should make every effort to optimize working hours, encourage team members to take breaks, and let employees fully unplug during weekends and vacations.

Delivering effective performance evaluations

Conducting performance evaluations requires soft skills such as empathy and goal-setting. In most local workplaces, performance evaluations are conducted annually and barely reflect a team’s daily tasks. Performance evaluations are one practice that is notably improved thanks to digital technologies. In 2019, we have access to performance management software that tracks workflows, summarizes completed objectives, and highlights your progress on key benchmarks.

However, performance management software has significant drawbacks if used as a “Big Brother” styled micromanagement tool. But with the right implementation, it can highlight the strength of your team and possible areas for improvement. Once leaders have this high-level picture of their team’s workload, they can provide additional resources and support as needed. These insights can be scaled to benefit individual employees or an entire organization as necessary.

As more and more teams become distributed and technologies for communication continues to advance, companies have to really think about how they develop soft skills in their managers that keep up with the evolution of the workplace, and we’ll likely see more as technologies evolve. Yet it’s important to remember that soft skills aren’t out of date — they simply need to be applied to digital work cultures in new ways. New managers must develop skills ranging from communication, active listening, team engagement, and empathy. In 2019, leaders who critically evaluate the role of digital tools and consciously invest in team culture will find success.

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Christine Tao is the co-founder & CEO at Sounding Board, a Silicon Valley startup redefining how organizations are developing their leaders. Her extraordinarily rapid career growth to executive management in the media, mobile and tech sectors of Silicon Valley became her inspiration for founding Sounding Board. As she began to manage larger teams and be responsible for growing revenues, it became clear that she needed a “sounding board” to coach her on the development of her leadership skills. That’s where her Sounding Board co-founder, Lori Mazan came on the scene. A seasoned executive coach focused on leadership development, Lori coached Christine on real-world leadership skills that had a direct impact on business outcomes. Based on her positive and impactful experience with leadership development, Christine was driven to make leadership development coaching accessible to people at all levels of the organization.
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