By April 15, 2020

Soft Skills for Remote Work (Or How To Get Programmers’ Collaborative Culture Rolling)

soft skills remote workHow many times in our lives have we dreamed of leaving the fuss of the modern world for a desert island where nobody can disturb us?

The coronavirus outbreak has made this dream come true for many of us, sort of.

Unfortunately, the scene is rarely a sandy beach, instead it is the walls of our apartments.

For better or worse, we now have a chance to test our working endurance away from the formalities of office life. Software development companies and their staff were among the first to switch to remote work, owing to almost fully digitized business processes.

But here lies a paradox.

A typical office environment that seems to be highly collaborative still leaves many chances to avoid collaboration. It’s easy to hide behind your desk and skip communication, with your more sociable colleagues leading the collaboration.

Remote work leaves no chance for you to hide from at least minimal collaboration, as employees need to directly report the work they’ve done, synchronize their activities, get updates, and discuss the next project stage.

What’s even more interesting is that a digital environment actually complicates collaboration.

When communicating face-to-face and being within earshot, people can control their interactions more easily. Distance makes us vulnerable to misunderstanding and confusion, which increases the importance of developers’ communication talents and team collaboration skills.

Having Soft Skills Is not the Same as Being an Extrovert

What about being introverted or extroverted? If you belong to either group, does it give you any advantages when it comes to communication, creative thinking, teamwork, and the ability to face new challenges and adapt to the evolving working environment?

First of all, it’s necessary to say that today introverts in software development are more often an exception than the rule. Second, being more extroverted doesn’t equal having excellent soft skills. That’s why both introverts and extroverts can face challenges in remote collaboration, such as:

  • Falling out of the team collaboration pace and the overall project flow.
  • Keeping a low profile within the team.
  • Missing a timely recommendation from a team member, and as a result making a serious mistake.
  • Communicating poorly with the customer.
  • Being overcommunicative, thus losing the focus and demonstrating low performance.

Global isolation will end.

However, businesses might need to restructure their workforce and start cooperating with remote programmers again in the future. It means that strategies for team collaboration and a tailored approach to nurturing the IT staff’s soft skills should be in place.

This approach can include three essential levels.

The 3 Essential Levels of Soft Skill Development in a Digital Environment

The evolution of programmers’ soft skills should be supported at the organizational, team, and individual levels. All of the initiatives described below are digitized, which is optimal for companies sticking to the remote working style or introducing temporary remote work for their IT staff.

Level 1: Organization-wide Initiatives

This level includes activities managed by organizations and targeted at erasing boundaries between software development departments, teams, and team members. These activities can be split into three groups.

Minimize communicative distance.

People tend to communicate openly only with those they regard as equal. Even though many IT teams stick to flat hierarchies, employees can still be cautious toward other teams, which is characteristic of larger companies.

To lower communicative caution, there should be a central collaboration hub for all employees.

Typically, this role is delegated to a corporate intranet that spreads the word across teams and communities, offers topics to discuss, and collects employees’ feedback. A corporate portal can also minimize the distance between developers of all levels and C-level managers so developers are free to address them without fear of being ignored.

“Give everyone the power to share anything with anyone,” Mark Zuckerberg said. This can be the right motto for businesses that want to make communication more transparent and open by launching a corporate portal.

Facilitate knowledge exchange.

Another important initiative is making corporate knowledge available to all employees. This is the only effective measure for preventing business mistakes caused by employees’ lack of knowledge, aggravated by their unwillingness to communicate. It is also a more digitally centric approach to improving the staff’s problem-solving skills.

To do it, companies can use their corporate intranets and knowledge bases. Those who stick to Microsoft technologies can go for SharePoint knowledge management and use the platform as an intranet and knowledge center at the same time. As a result, even those who don’t like live communication have a chance to find an expert answer when they need it.

Nurture soft skills through social activities.

Oftentimes, people who are reserved in business communication can be enthusiastic while discussing their topics of interest, whether it’s software development or personal hobbies.

Keeping this in mind, companies can support communities of interest on their corporate portals, thus stimulating programmers to communicate more, get connected, and know each other better. Later on, social engagement can transform into more open and fruitful business collaboration.

Level 2: Team Initiatives

At the next level, initiatives spread within a particular team. The biggest responsibility for the success of these initiatives is on team managers’ shoulders. To make their teams develop soft skills, team managers can try out the following techniques

Balance hyperactive and passive behaviors.

It’s impossible to make passive developers active in the blink of an eye. What team managers can do is make those who are more energetic respect their more passive colleagues and vice versa.

It’s worth organizing online team-building events to let people voice their communication preferences and choose the most optimal collaboration style. Team activities such as online games can also help eliminate barriers between teammates and shape the team spirit.

Mentor programmers’ soft skills.

Team InitiativesIf a developer who has never worked on a team joins a project, this can end up badly. Lone wolves hardly become great team players quickly. As a result, such people can keep away from the team and ignore the team’s policies. In this situation, it’s reasonable for team managers to dedicate their time to individual mentorship, to help a person become part of the team and feel the team vibe.

If team managers see obvious gaps in their team members’ soft skills, it’s a good idea to discuss the bottlenecks one-on-one.

Define the right team roles.

Sometimes, employees are ineffective because they’re doing work that’s wrong for them.

If code delivery and customer communication are delegated to an unsociable developer, positive results will be unlikely. A manager can assess the team members and choose a more enthusiastic engineer for this task. As for the developers who feel uncomfortable collaborating, they can oftentimes create much better code if left in peace.

Level 3: Personal Enhancement

Last but not least is self-improvement. If programmers don’t take any steps to enhance their soft skills, even the most engaged and experienced team managers and organizations with best-in-class team collaboration tools won’t help. Only developers themselves can choose to improve their soft skills, thus upgrading their personal characteristics and increasing productivity.

If they are willing to improve, here are a few things they can do.

Try a new role.

Let’s invert the example above. Instead of waiting for the manager’s verdict or a formal soft skills assessment, developers can be more proactive and ask to try new roles that involve more active use of soft skills. For example, they can start collaborating with a project manager regularly or participate in customer calls and presentations.

Find a role model.

Soft skills training can be irritating and demotivating for developers if it’s pushy. At the same time, developers can choose their online mentors among technology geeks, innovators, and evangelists who are active in the media. It’s worth watching presentations and public speeches to analyze professionals’ behavior and incorporate their best practices into daily work.

Choose an engaging project.

Sometimes, the project doesn’t leave any chance for developers to improve their soft skills. Those who feel stuck and are looking for new opportunities should do something about it. The software development field is extremely diverse, so there are millions of projects to participate in. Applying for a more engaging project can bring developers into a more dynamic team and open up new opportunities for nurturing personal soft skills.

When Soft Skills Can Outweigh Hard Skills

Many who work in software development got used to thinking that hard skills are more valuable than soft skills.

Indeed, clean and concise code can sometimes compensate for a lack of team collaboration skills.

But during this global isolation, programmers unable to collaborate effectively put themselves at greater risk of falling out of pace with the team and project.

Those who are capable of managing their work time, are resilient to stress, and are open to new challenges can achieve new professional heights that are otherwise unachievable in the office.

About the author

Sandra Göğer

Sandra Göğer is a Technology Observer at Iflexion, a custom software development company headquartered in Denver, Colorado. Being an expert in team and enterprise collaboration technologies, Sandra guides companies towards effective employee engagement and productivity practices. She has a unique perspective on talent management strategies and offers hands-on tips on improving enterprise-to-employee relationships. Sandra is also keen on data visualization, art, and design.