Soft Skills in Remote Work

Maxilect
10 min readJun 29, 2023

It is commonly acknowledged that possessing soft skills is crucial for effective team collaboration. These skills are often assessed during the hiring process. However, an important question arises: what if individuals excel technically but the workflow necessitates the display of more “soft” skills?

The development of soft skills is both possible and necessary. Let us discuss how this can be achieved within the company, focusing on our approach to fostering these skills.

Let me explain what this conversation is about.

You have probably thought about the qualities that are missing in your life in order to feel better in society. Some people might struggle with being sociable, others with being determined, and others with having self-confidence. These qualities can be developed over time through various methods like reading books, articles, or attending training sessions. However, we’ll discuss that later.

In this article, I want to talk about a situation where someone from outside notices that a team lacks certain qualities for effective teamwork, but only a few members of the team feel motivated to work on improving these skills. How can we create an environment that encourages the development of these important soft skills without making people feel overwhelmed and attracts as many participants as possible, even in remote situations?

Remote basics

When working remotely, certain qualities are important, and we prioritize them. We have identified six key competencies that encompass important soft skills:

1. Independence: This quality measures an employee’s ability to handle their work independently, make appropriate decisions, and find solutions to difficult situations without relying heavily on colleagues;

2. Proactivity: This competency reflects how actively someone seeks opportunities and influences events. Proactive individuals are results-oriented and willingly take on team responsibilities. They don’t just go along with the flow; they take charge of their own path;

3. Communication skills: We value employees who can clearly articulate their viewpoints, express thoughts in a clear and understandable manner, actively listen, and provide constructive feedback to the team;

4. Responsibility: This competency revolves around taking ownership of deadlines, delivering results, and fulfilling obligations;

5. Effective teamwork: This encompasses a range of qualities that facilitate better collaboration with colleagues and leverage individual strengths to achieve shared goals;

6. Punctuality: Being punctual demonstrates organizational skills and composure.

There is some overlap between these competencies. For instance, proactivity intersects with communication skills and responsibility. Responsibility also includes elements of punctuality and independence. However, having this conceptual breakdown allows us to discuss development more effectively, choose relevant topics, and progress in the right direction.

Each competency consists of multiple elements. We can’t just come and say, “Hey, let’s communicate well as a team.” That would be like talking into empty space.

It’s important to break down each competency into specific skills and work on them individually.

Interestingly, the list of competencies that seems important from an external perspective differs slightly when we look at it from within the team. Our internal survey revealed that communication is highly valued competence. Almost every employee identified it as one of the top three competencies needed for remote work. The ability to work in a team and be a reliable member came in second place. Independence, particularly in terms of planning, was ranked third. We noticed that fewer colleagues mentioned proactivity, even though we prioritize it along with independence. However, overall, our chosen direction aligns with the views of our team members.

The process of identifying areas for development is creative. We have a mechanism and platform for suggesting interesting topics related to both technical and soft skills. Due to the alignment with our development focus, we receive a steady flow of requests. We carefully select the most popular ones and determine what we can offer and in what format.

Last year, we focused on the communication aspect. We held several sessions on information hygiene, feedback, and detecting manipulation. Unfortunately, we didn’t cover the topic of conflicts, but we plan to address it in the future. This year, our attention is directed towards effective team interaction (and, by the way, conflicts can be examined from this perspective).

We have a thematic plan for most of the year, except for November and December. We are not bound by the need to allocate the entire annual budget, and we prefer to make adjustments based on feedback from colleagues. Additionally, the end of the year tends to be busy with events like performance evaluations, corporate parties, and gift-giving. Therefore, we haven’t finalized plans for November and December yet.

How Do We Develop Specific Skills?

Currently, we are focused on training as the primary method for skill development. However, it’s important to note that training alone is not a magic solution. Attending a training session won’t instantly transform someone into an expert. The purpose of training is to guide individuals in the right direction for development, but it’s up to the person to apply what they learn in practical situations.

Who Conducts the Trainings?

We bring in external experts to conduct our trainings. While we initially explored utilizing internal knowledge by having more experienced colleagues share their insights, we found that the format suited for technical knowledge doesn’t work as well for soft skills. Since we’re dealing with more abstract concepts, it’s crucial to have skilled trainers who can present effective models. Additionally, our colleagues already have their hands full with their primary work responsibilities, making it challenging for them to prepare presentations on additional topics. Thus, we’ve found it more efficient to seek external professionals with relevant experience and best practices to deliver the trainings.

Training Format

Since we operate entirely remotely, our trainings are conducted online. While it would be ideal to have face-to-face discussions on important topics, logistical difficulties currently prevent us from doing so. Online training has its own unique characteristics. Non-verbal communication is limited, particularly when someone joins without a camera due to weak internet connections. This makes it more challenging to maintain the audience’s attention and gauge their understanding of the discussed material. Therefore, we specifically choose trainers who have worked with the IT industry before. It’s crucial that they can communicate using IT-specific language, avoiding any confusion regarding terms like “code review” or “release.” The training sessions should be tailored to our needs and not generalized for abstract sales managers.

Ideally, training on a specific topic should not be isolated. Repetitive activities are necessary to reinforce and develop skills. It’s preferable to have the same participants attend these activities. We strive to select topics that build upon each other within the same competency. This year, we are also experimenting with a pinning format, but it’s too early to discuss its pros and cons — we’ll evaluate it through practical experience.

As we work remotely, we strongly encourage participants to turn on their cameras during trainings and internal calls. This helps create a more engaging and active conversation, ensuring that we don’t become mere “white letters on a black background” to each other.

Participant Composition

Traditionally, an optimal group size for a training session is around 15–20 people. However, we don’t limit the number of participants and try to invite as many as possible. Unfortunately, we can only estimate the audience in advance.

Both during the preparation stage and right before the training, we have to consider certain factors. In the preparation stage, it’s important to choose the meeting time wisely.

Since the trainings take place outside of working hours, we need to accommodate the personal schedules of our colleagues and their priorities. Our team mainly consists of mid-level to senior specialists and team leads. Typically, these individuals are over 25 years old, with families and evening responsibilities related to them. Understanding their busy schedules, we strive not to overwhelm them with additional activities and be as predictable as possible. For this reason, we usually schedule events on Wednesdays or Thursdays, the middle of the week. As a result, we have no more than 1–2 soft skills meetings per month (bearing in mind our monthly company-wide conference call and IT gatherings).

Trainings are utilizing our colleagues’ personal time. Thus, we need to limit the duration of the events. We once had a training session that lasted for three hours, which became problematic for colleagues in different time zones, as it was late in the evening for them. Although we didn’t receive negative feedback after that event, we strive to avoid repeating that experience.

By the way, it’s important to effectively communicate the chosen time and topic of the event to potential participants. Lengthy descriptions between work tasks often go unread, and brief summaries of just two sentences don’t always convey the essence. We share information about planned meetings during company-wide conference calls, in internal chat, and through email reminders. However, we must admit that the announcements don’t always reach and engage the audience. This is an area where we have room for improvement, and we are implementing a new approach starting in April.

Right before the start of the event, a small portion of the audience may change (similar to other events, regardless of their format). According to our internal rule, once the meeting is scheduled, colleagues mark it on their calendars to indicate whether they plan to attend. However, just like in physical offices, unexpected circumstances can arise. Someone might have an unexpected release today that didn’t go as planned, another person might experience a power outage or loss of internet connection and won’t be able to join, while a third person might be available earlier and decide to attend.

Despite the uncertainty with the audience, we’ve achieved good results. In 2022, the average number of participants in a single training session was 15 people.

Recording

When it comes to hard skills, recording meetings helps in reaching a wider audience. People listen and take notes. However, with soft skills, things are a bit more complicated. Since most trainings involve interaction, recording them is not always as beneficial. Nonetheless, we still try to save recordings in our knowledge base for those who are genuinely interested in listening again, revisiting the content in a few months, or learning about the topic from scratch (especially if they couldn’t attend the live session). By the way, when selecting a trainer, we consider whether they provide recordings, as it’s not uncommon for some to charge a separate fee, sometimes a significant one, for a video file.

Overall, since we started offering training in early 2022, we’ve noticed an increased interest from employees in developing their soft skills, and that’s fantastic.

How do we assess progress?

When it comes to improving something, it’s important to measure the process to understand how our actions impact the final outcome. In our case, we use methods commonly used by educational organizations, such as surveys in small groups.

Our goal has been to simplify the evaluation system as much as possible. We rely on lead surveys to assess progress. Periodically (currently once every six months), we send out surveys to gather feedback on the competencies of our team members. We then compare the results before and after a series of trainings.

It’s worth noting that the leads themselves, in addition to participating in general corporate trainings, also undergo specific “managerial” training. This helps them better understand their teams and make quicker decisions. As a result, the assessment can change over time not only due to the trainings attended by regular employees but also because leads gain clearer insights into the situation. However, we can’t freeze one aspect of learning to more accurately measure another. It’s something we have to accept.

It’s also important to acknowledge that measuring the immediate results of a training isn’t always meaningful. Some time needs to pass for the information to settle in participants’ minds and for them to start applying it in practical ways. Developing soft skills is a long-term investment.

In the future, we plan to incorporate discussions within our regular one-on-one meetings as part of the assessment process. However, we face the challenge that each employee has their own perspective on what’s happening, making it difficult to create a standardized template for everyone. So, we’re currently exploring ways to calibrate the assessment on a team scale.

What and why do we ask after the training?

While measuring effectiveness afterward may not make much sense, it’s crucial to gather feedback about the invited contractor.

We ask whether the speaker was liked and if participants learned something new for themselves. Additionally, we find out if the training met expectations, which helps us assess the quality of the announcement. Based on the feedback we receive, we can make adjustments for future events, such as varying the depth of content or duration. Thanks to these reviews, we now delve deeper, develop interactive tools for meetings, and prepare many more interesting things.

Some contractors offer post-training support, such as consultations and assistance with questions. Lately, we’ve been aiming to select only such contractors. The format where the method’s author appears as a guest speaker and quickly leaves, demanding payment for every subsequent minute, is quite strange. We need a more humane approach.

How do we handle negativity?

Within our team, there is a group of individuals who openly express their lack of interest in such meetings, as their focus for personal development lies elsewhere. We respect their choices and don’t impose our proposals on them. They receive invitations to all general events like everyone else, but they are not obliged to attend anything that is not directly related to their job responsibilities.

In my opinion, regardless of how proficient one is in soft skills, there is always room for improvement. However, pushing too hard can create resistance. That’s why we avoid pressuring or insisting on participation. The only available tool we have is one-on-one meetings, where we can suggest specific skill development areas. For example, if someone tends to provide overly harsh feedback on projects, we can recommend focusing on that aspect. However, forcing someone into feedback training would be meaningless. It’s important for individuals to choose the format of skill development that suits them best and aligns with their current objectives. Additionally, all these activities are scheduled outside of working hours.

We initiated this approach last year, and this year we have made significant progress. I am hopeful that by the end of the year, we will have noteworthy achievements to discuss. We have already established a platform for collecting topics and tools for assessing needs through lead surveys. We are committed to continuous improvement.

Author: Marina Velikih, Maxilect.

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Maxilect

We are building IT-solutions for the Adtech and Fintech industries. Our clients are SMBs across the Globe (including USA, EU, Australia).