Whether you believe the future of work is coming, or is already here, there’s no doubt you’re feeling the impact of new work trends. As organizational structures continue to evolve, there is an increased demand for teams that can handle volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. In their recent Human Capital Trends Report, Deloitte found that only 14% of executives believe that traditional organizational models, with hierarchies delineated by expertise, make their organizations effective. As we push to reduce hierarchies to create flatter structures, there’s a movement to create flatter, more networked teams. These teams are agile and collaborative—employees work on multiple projects, across multiple teams, and with team members who may report to different managers.
As Gallup notes in their State of The American Workplace report, 84% of employees are in networked work environments to some extent. Employees are finding themselves in less hierarchical environments where they work across multiple teams and projects. As the World Economic Forum notes in their Future of Jobs report: “social skills—such as persuasion, emotional intelligence and teaching others—will be in higher demand across industries than narrow technical skills, such as programming or equipment operation and control.”
How can leaders help their teams thrive in these new conditions? We believe strongly that there is lots of work leaders can do in rethinking how to develop the agile, collaborative teams their business needs, and for developing employees who are prepared to meet the challenges of working on networked teams. Try one of these techniques to develop “soft skills” in your team:
When hiring, screen for soft skills and culture fit. Of course, many positions will have technical requirements—but it’s a lot easier to teach an employee how to use a piece of software (or better yet, coach them to teach themselves), than it is to teach emotional intelligence or interpersonal skills. One quick trick to help you screen for emotional intelligence and empathy: ask the staff at the reception desk how they were treated when greeting the candidate. Were they kind and respectful? Or rude and dismissive? People are on their best behavior in the interview process, so these types of cues can tell you a lot.
Find ways to create cross-silo collaboration. Cross-functional, project oriented teams are becoming more important for businesses that want to say competitive. Skills and job descriptions often necessitate small groups of staff frequently working together often—but whenever possible, bring in a second opinion from another department, schedule a thrashing session, or shake up project teams. People tend to gravitate towards people who are like them—think about switching up the natural groups that form on your team.
Make social skills and communication a priority. We’ve all worked with that one person who was technically brilliant, but socially difficult. It’s tempting to focus on their output while ignoring the negative effects an abrasive communication style has on team morale. Make it clear to your team that empathy and emotional intelligence are just as important as delivering high quality work. It may feel counter-intuitive in the short term, but your team will perform better in the long run.
Encourage your team to practice persuasion. When faced with two or more options, resist the urge to make an executive decision, and ask your team members to advocate for the solution they believe in. Listen to all perspectives, and make an informed decision from there. In the process, you may find that elements of one person’s idea solve the problems in another. You will also help your teams see problems from each other’s perspective.
Build in opportunities for peer learning and teaching. Ask your designer to give a talk to the sales team about creating effective slide decks. Bring a member of the sales force to a marketing meeting so they can talk about what they’re seeing in the field. As your budget allows, encourage staff to pursue opportunities for further education—and then ask them to lead a meeting on what they’ve learned.
Recognize different personality types, and use them to your advantage. At Actionable, we have a great mix of creative thinkers and process-oriented people. Acknowledging our differences, and coming up with effective ways to work together, makes us a stronger team. Small adjustments can go a long way. For example, I know that my colleague Alysha prefers to tackle tasks in the morning, and creative work later in the day. Knowing this about her has allowed me to time my requests according to how she works best, and strengthened our collaborative relationship.
Be a coach, not a problem solver. When members of your team come to you with a problem, resist the urge to provide a concrete answer, and focus on asking questions that will help them figure out the problem for themselves. When an issue is presented, ask “what have you tried so far?” If the answer is “nothing,” suggest a few resources they can research on their own, and ask them to come back to you if they remain stuck.
Perhaps most importantly, make time for conversations. Don’t skip your one-on-one check-ins, no matter how busy you are. Use these meetings as an opportunity to connect with your team, both about their progress on deliverables, and about what’s going on in their lives. Provide feedback on soft skills, as well as on their outcomes. It may feel uncomfortable in the moment, but I can tell you first-hand—your teams would rather get constructive feedback than continue habits that rub their colleagues the wrong way. Go ahead and let them know to stop hitting reply all on every single email, to try not to message the sales team department first thing in the morning, or that IT is currently swamped and it will take awhile to respond to requests. Small adjustments can make a big difference.
The best way to develop the social skills employees need to thrive in agile, collaborative teams—including emotional intelligence, effective communication, and empathy—is to expose people to different perspectives, new ways of thinking, and diverse groups of people.
Work with your teams to help them see problems from new angles, consider alternate perspectives, and collaborate freely. Not only will you help your team develop the skills they need to thrive in the future of work, you’ll develop an agile, collaborative team that is capable of exceeding expectations and delivering great results.