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4 Essential Soft Skills for Successful Remote Work

A woman working in her home office with headphones on.

​The shift to remote work has been one of the most conspicuous HR trends of 2020. Many industry forecasters believe a significant percentage of work will continue to be performed remotely in the years ahead, even after the coronavirus threat is contained. In this new normal, it's important to know which soft skills are critical for effective remote work and how managers can best identify and bring out those skills in their direct reports.

Soft skills have always been a factor in hiring decisions at Lever, said Annie Lin, vice president of people at the recruiting software company in San Francisco. "Traits like adaptability and flexibility were important marks for a candidate, but not necessarily absolute must-haves," she said. "Now, if someone isn't adaptable and flexible and open to frequent changes in priorities, that's a dealbreaker. In today's new paradigm, flexibility, strong communication skills and the ability to adapt as working conditions evolve are the most important qualities a candidate can have."

1. Adaptability and Resiliency

"Change can be frightening—particularly when you're pivoting to an entirely new way of working, which may be unfamiliar to you or your team," said Darren Murph, head of remote at all-remote technology company GitLab in San Francisco. "The key to staying grounded while adjusting to remote work is to look for opportunity whenever you instinctively fall into a scarcity mindset. It's important to remember that a remote transition is not a binary switch—it's a journey of iteration. Be open to rolling with the waves, as each day is a chance to learn."

Remote workers have to be prepared to adapt to unexpected situations, like IT issues, said Ashira Prossack, a performance leadership coach and speaker based in Philadelphia. "Be prepared for these situations, know who to contact to resolve them, and have a backup plan," she said. "Sometimes it takes a bit of creative problem-solving to find a solution, but that's all part of being adaptable."

2. Self-Motivation

Discipline and self-motivation are necessary for remote work. Remote employees need to be proactive and take initiative without being constantly monitored by managers.

"GitLab specifically hires those who are 'managers of one,' " Murph said. "Great remote workers thrive with a high degree of autonomy. They relish the freedom to accomplish goals on their own terms and recharge when it's time to recharge."

There will always be distractions when working from home, Prossack said. She recommended at-home workers maintain focus by blocking out visual and audible distractions. "Noise-canceling headphones are fantastic, as is the power of an organized workspace," she said. "Embrace the fact that there will be interruptions and don't dwell on an interruption when it happens."

She added that apps designed to boost productivity and track time can be helpful. Additional tips include blocking off certain times of the day to dedicate as focus hours, working in sprints for a period of time then taking a short break before repeating the cycle, and not getting sidetracked with e-mail or Slack notifications.

3. Communication

Remote work requires excellent communication. Familiarity with a variety of virtual communication tools like instant messaging and videoconferencing apps is helpful.

"When teams work remotely, at least half of all communication is done via writing rather than speaking," Prossack said. "This means communicating through e-mails, Slack, text and using the chat function on video calls."

Murph suggested that managers ask their direct reports how they prefer to be communicated with, and how often. "Remember that micromanagement feels different in a remote setting," he said. "Messages hit different when people are sitting in their home, and leaders must be aware that a more empathetic touch should be considered."

He also advised that managers be considerate of Zoom fatigue and work on crafting low-context communication, "which means that you communicate with a very high degree of precision and detail, such that someone joining a project six months in could get up to speed simply by reading."

4. Collaboration

Collaboration is easier when employees sit next to their teammates. Once physically disconnected, it's important for team members to stay connected with routine check-ins.

"Working remotely doesn't mean working alone," Prossack said. "You're still going to be part of a team, which means working with colleagues on projects and tasks. Make use of tools like project management software, shared documents and folders, and dedicated Slack channels where people can easily chat with each other and find information. Get comfortable using these types of applications and working within shared documents."

Murph added that remote teams thrive when someone is in charge of formalizing informal communication. "Add structure to what was once left to fate, and document where work communication happens and where informal communication happens. Be articulate about where collaboration occurs and ensure that outputs are documented. This enables asynchronous collaboration and creates a knowledge trail that benefits those who join a project midstream."


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