Article

Fabiana Fregni 25 May 2020

Soft Skills and Quarantine: Why a Kinder Working Environment is Waiting for us After the Covid Crisis.

Aristotle believed man was a “political animal” because he is a social creature with the power of speech and moral reasoning. Therefore, we need to communicate and to have social interactions to feel alive.

This is why, we are so afraid of social distancing and isolation. But being able to communicate with our peers and our boss only through a screen has forced us to keep developing soft skills that before were taken for granted.

  1. Teamwork – if you have been able to feel part of a team while being alone in your living room, once back at the office, how happy you will be to share and discuss your ideas and strategies with your peers?
  2. Adaptability – if you have been able to adapt yourself to a new work environment from night to day, how easier will be to adapt to a new boss or to a new protocol in your company?
  3. Learnability – home office means if you have doubts or questions you need to call or email someone to ask for help. I am sure you have tried to solve them yourself before bothering someone else during the past days. For this reason, you have learnt new skills and implemented your competences.
  4. Kindness – you knew you were not the only one having a bad day having to work from home, with the possibility to go out only for a run and not for a beer or a coffee with your friends and family. Because of this, you were kinder than normal when sending an email or presenting your ideas in a zoom meeting.

This analysis makes clear that the common statement “every crisis brings an opportunity” is not far from our daily job and routine.

What we need to do is remember the way we were building and enforcing our work relationship during these days. That smiley faces we were adding at the end of an email when asking for help and when congratulating with someone need to be a real smiley, we must bring at the office every day.

It is easy to predict most of us will do it with no effort, because we are social creatures and, after social distancing, we will need more than ever to take care of our relationship.

A kinder and more empathic working environment is waiting for us after days of social distancing and forced home office.

The Covid19 effect: a kinder, gentler workplace?  

The truth in Aristotle’s observation that “Man is by nature a social animal…” has been firmly underscored by people’s responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. Forced to work from home, people across age groups, genders, nationalities and industries have, in the past couple of months, expressed the sense of boredom or listlessness they experienced (and continue to do so) in the absence of the social interactions that workplaces offer. And yet, most of these same people have adapted admirably, finding digital workarounds to maintain social interactions.

For example, virtual conference calls using Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Google Meet have enabled colleagues, managers, direct reports and other stakeholders to engage with each other. There are also apps like Slack and Hangouts that let people exchange information quickly, easily and unobtrusively. Despite inconveniences due to time zone differences, members of geographically dispersed teams have participated in such calls, not just for “work” but also to sustain interpersonal relationships.

Everyone is talking about how radically different the post-Covid19 world will be. The way we shop, how we bank, the way children learn, how we watch sports – everything will change. Offices and workplaces too will be reimagined as a result of social distancing. Remote working will become more common; indeed, it will be the new norm for the foreseeable future. With only 30-40% of employees working from offices (and the remaining working from home), a new operating model will evolve. This paradigm will need to be enabled by changes to business models, strategies, policies, organization structures, processes and even performance metrics.

One thing that will not change will be people’s inter-dependence on one another; what will, however, change is their ability to walk across to a colleague or friend for advice on matters related to work or other matters. To compensate for this gap, I believe we will see a change in the mindsets, attitudes and behaviors of people that, in turn, will shape a new kind of dynamics of working together. For instance, I believe that prolonged remote working has made people develop greater empathy for the people they work with- colleagues, direct reports or even managers. A larger number of people now more easily appreciate the kinds of constraints others work under, and are hence more willing to make adjustments (e.g. to expectations and timelines).

Over the past two decades, forces such as globalization and rapid technology shifts have almost imposed a culture of heightened internal competition within organizations. Practices such as fitting employees on a performance Bell Curve became popular. A major visible consequence of all this has been selfishness at the individual, team and departmental levels. In turn, this has adversely impacted a range of behaviors that are critical to sustaining organizational success.

The quarantines, lockdowns and travel bans imposed by Covid19 have given people an opportunity to critically examine their own behaviors and make necessary changes. From my own experience as well as interactions with clients and candidates, I see four specific behavioral traits that seem to be manifesting prominently in people as we start to come out of the pandemic. I believe that these will be critical as organizations rebuild their pandemic-ravaged businesses and individuals work to regain a semblance of control over their lives.

  • Empathy and kindness: A greater awareness of a colleague’s constraints (e.g. a young child disturbing a call or the need to schedule a call at a certain time so as to not make it very early/late for some colleagues) means a greater willingness on the part of people to adjust. This also comes through when drafting emails, listening to a colleague’s ideas, or reviewing presentations. The smileys we add to our informal (and sometimes, formal) communication also demonstrate this. Would you not agree that exhibiting higher levels of empathy and kindness than before will create a virtuous cycle that will benefit everyone in the team and hence the entire organization?
  • Teamwork: There is now a greater acceptance that challenges can be overcome only through teamwork. Informal discussion of ideas amongst colleagues indicates that going forward, people are likely to be unified by a greater sense of common purpose to quickly put the damage cause by Covid19 behind them. I believe that the pandemic has at least partially erased the siloed thinking and selfishness that were often visible in how executives functioned. It has made people more open about sharing their ideas and respecting each other’s efforts and space. Unfair credit-snatching will, I hope reduce in the days ahead. Will a sense of teamwork not accelerate the organization’s journey to growth and thus enable individuals to do the same?
  • Learnability: In a typical, pre-Covid office environment, help (formal or informal) was easier to get. It will not be so in the new normal because many “friends” may not be in office when we are, and vice versa. The lockdown gave people a whiff of what might await them, so they began to proactively reach out to others for help. But in the process, they tried to find solutions themselves and thus built their own capabilities and knowledge. Don’t you agree that more of us now possess a wider range of skills and are less fearful to learn and try new things?
  • Adaptability: Most of us do not like change, preferring strongly to operate within our respective zones of comfort. But when something as massive as the pandemic hits us all, we learn to cope. Our focus is on getting back to being as productive as possible at the earliest, despite the constraints around us. This is what spurs creative thinking and drives innovations around processes, technology, and even product or business strategies. Don’t you think adapting to a new policy or a new role or a new boss will now be easier?

The Covid19 pandemic has cruelly taken hundreds of thousands of human lives (and many more jobs) worldwide; hundreds of billions of dollars have been wiped out from the global economy. But as the saying goes, “every crisis brings opportunities”. I see signs and am thus hopeful that the reset in mindsets, attitude, and behaviors that are taking place in the wake of this crisis will make workplaces kinder, gentler, and more responsive to the world’s changing needs, thus ushering in a new paradigm of business sustainability.