The Shift from Surviving to Thriving in the 2021 Workplace
The last year has taught us many significant lessons. Massive change and chaos has, in many ways, made us stronger and more adaptable. As you reflect, take inventory of your year and consider critical ways you can demonstrate greater value in your career in 2021 and beyond.
Below is a transcript excerpted from a virtual panel of consultants in a webinar facilitated by MATRIX in December 2020. Watch the full recording of the webinar here.
Moderator Jon Davis (Chief Revenue Officer at MATRIX): McKinsey has put out quite a bit of fantastic research related to surviving during the time of COVID. Here are four areas they cite as important to companies and employees who wish to not just survive, but thrive during the pandemic:
The ability to move to a fully digital environment. There's nothing like a pandemic that could accelerate the move that was already underway in digital transformation. Employers are telling the marketplace they are going fully digital. We work in the technology space, so that's a very natural occurrence, but as this starts to permeate through all industries and all functions, this will be a big trend.
With the immediate impact in March that took everyone from an office environment to a hybrid or distributed environment, the need for emotional intelligence or EQ has taken on added importance.
The emotional skills required to collaborate with teams virtually is quite different. It's easier if you've worked with someone for a long time, but as new teammates come onto the team, it is very important to understand the social and emotional impact.
It's required in today's market to be adaptable. What was important in February 2020 for many organizations changed dramatically when COVID came around, so being adaptable and resilient for what is next is essential.
The value of hard skills and soft skills
LinkedIn reached out to thousands of hiring managers and asked the question, ‘is it more important to hire soft skills or hard skills?’ And the answer that came back was both. While that's not necessarily new information, what is new is the rise of the importance of soft skills in the new market.
Hard skills are what we see above water. Think of an iceberg; that's what's visible. You can measure them. You can articulate them. And a job description is very clear about what hard skills are needed.
Soft skills are a bit harder to quantify and qualify. Candidates are typically hired for their hard skills, and those skills get them in the door. Yet what we hear from employers and hiring managers across the landscape is they hire for hard skills and they fire for soft skills.
So, you need to have both. Both are critically important to get the job that you want and putting those two together makes you a more valuable resource in the market.
Many times, people think you're either born with soft skills or you're not. “She's a natural leader.” “He's a great salesperson.” “She has a great work ethic.” But that’s not entirely true. Soft skills can be improved upon.
As you look at your own toolkit as you prepare for 2021, which soft skills do you want to sharpen for the new year? Which of these do you think will help advance your cause to add more value to your employer and make your opportunity to earn more income grow in the new year?
Let’s hear the thoughts of four MATRIX consultants on this question:
Lexi Kloop has been in the IT industry for just over eight years, currently working as a Windows administrator for an insurance claims organization.
Michael Pistiolis is a financial services consultantwith25 years of experience, helping clients’ teams with development and delivery across enterprises.
Ed Salako is passionate about the full utilization of CRM and the value that it can bring to an organization and customer base. He has over 20 years of experience in the IT space serving in project team capabilities.
Karthik Srinivasan is a technical project manager in the IT banking space working around data modeling and data architecture with over 20 years of experience.
Q: When you think about hard skills and soft skills, how have those played out in your career?
Michael: When we interview job candidates, we obviously look at their certification credentials. But what we really look for is the combination of hard and soft skills. ‘Tell us what you've delivered? Tell us what you've executed? Tell us what your challenges have been?’ That's great to have the certification, but most importantly tell us how you got your hands involved and engaged. I think hard skills is what you see on paper, but soft skills is personality and the brand that you bring to the team.
Karthik: People can often pigeon-hole themselves into a silo where they get too technical while trying to explain a problem to a non-technical audience.
Many people have good technology skills and are quickly able to get to the root of the problem. But when they are trying to communicate that up and down the chain, they lose the message by being too technical. Good communication skills are even more important now as we go forward in a virtual environment while supporting our non-technical leadership.
Lexi: I talk to customers all day, every day, and communication is a big part of it. As I'm speaking with them, I have them show me what the issue is. Because what I think it may be versus what they think it is can be two very different things. Then as I'm looking at stuff on my end, I try and communicate that I'm not just hanging out. I want them to know I'm working towards a solution.
I have a lot of people ask me, ‘Well, what was the problem? What did you do to fix it?’ You must be able to communicate that in a way that they can understand.
Ed: Time constraint is a big issue right now. We are trying to figure out how to communicate in this limited attention space that we have today. Being concise is key. That speaks to soft skills being able to interpret or see what’s there and what's not there and then apply answers to those questions quickly.
Q: In that regard, what are things you didn't expect to be important that suddenly have become important?
Michael: I think there were lots of “whales” back in March when we knew little about working remotely. Thank goodness the technology was there for folks to have remote access and thank goodness a lot of that infrastructure and architecture was in place.
I would say the biggest “whale” that I experienced is network capacity. When you run these Zoom calls, capacity is consumed quickly. And one of the big whales was to see the technology team react quickly and get the right bandwidth. We needed the right architecture in place for employees and consultants to be able to do their jobs 100% remotely.
I think the other big wow factor is that water cooler conversations went away immediately. One thing we took for granted was walking to the restroom, or getting up to grab water, where you ran into people and had casual conversations about work. Now you must use tools like Skype or Zoom to connect with someone. It’s gotten a little harder to find them.
Ed: We're all working from home and so we had to employ soft skills learning about how we work. This is separate from just how we do the work. It’s more about learning about ourselves. Showing empathy, for example, was key in helping us navigate some of the challenges. People are showing more fatigue or burnout symptoms more quickly. Or they’re possibly working or online for too long at home. I would say the biggest challenge was getting people to disconnect.
Q: What types of surprises, good or bad, in terms of logistics have you seen take place?
Karthik: We had a whole list of things that we wanted to achieve as a team for 2020, but the entire plan came to a screeching halt. All the branch banking closed, which means our traffic on digital literally doubled. This was something that nobody expected.
When you plan for contingencies or buffer to support your systems, you plan for a 30 or 40% contingency, but never a 150% contingency. So, we had to pivot everything.
We are pleasantly surprised that the team delivered more features and functions than the previous year. That goes to show that if you have a committed team willing to do it together, there is a good chance we can achieve success.
The new way of consulting is going to be like operating in gray space. Not everything is going to be clearly defined because even the product teams do not know exactly what they want to put out because they are trying to figure it all out. Nobody planned for this scenario. One thing that clients expect consultants to do is think on their feet.
Jon: I think the adaptability that McKinsey talked about is important. The word pivot is another overused word, but the importance of being able to pivot cannot be overstated.
Also, I think that gray space is very important. Being able to operate in the ambiguous world at times and find clarity is going to provide a leadership opportunity for you as an individual.
Lexi: When everybody went home, we expected to get more phone calls like, ‘my computer can't connect to the internet,’ but I don't think we expected it to continue. But it has. And it becomes a much bigger deal because it's not a matter of someone going over to their cubicle and making sure their computer is plugged in. We can't go to their homes. We must find other ways. Sometimes it means replacing the equipment a lot sooner than we normally would have anticipated,
Q: What impact has COVID had on the importance of CRM?
Ed: You've got salespeople who are magical with soft skills who are no longer able to apply that magic. Half of the dimension of applying soft skills is proximity, and they were not able to do that anymore in person. So, the demand for good comprehensive data and good digital representation of a client in a CRM platform helps close that proximity gap.
Q: Do you have any tactical or tangible advice on how to foster better communication among teammates? I've seen a lot of virtual happy hours and I've seen some well done, and some not so much.
Karthik: We’ve lost the water cooler approach, so now it's all about trying to set up a virtual call or meeting for every single information exchange that we would like to do. But what I see is how time is a premium commodity, so you must be well-prepared going into a conversation so that you make the best use of the 15 minutes you get with X, Y, or Z.
Obviously, you still need that social time. But given the circumstances, it has made me organize myself better with all the information that I need, and exactly what I'm going to get from the other person and keep the conversation crisper.
Q: Any ideas or advice to foster that communication that you've seen work well beyond a project or a group item, going back to the emotional side or the connectedness side?
Michael: We have a daily standup. Sometimes it's 15 or 20 minutes where we just bring the group together and ask, ‘What are you doing? What do you mean? Do you have any blockers? What is it I can help you with right now?’ Then we go around the room and hold one or two-minute conversations with everyone on the call. These daily standups have really helped us connect; they also help us plan out the rest of the day.
Karthik: The interaction with your leadership has changed because now there is this human aspect that has come into play. Now working from home, you're able to tell your manager, ‘hey, I have an errand to run that will take me 30-45 minutes.’ These are some of the conversations you may have hesitated to have with your manager previously in an office setting. And I think this has changed the dynamics, the personal level of bonding between you and your leadership and even your teammates. Now you're more able to empathize with some of the problems that they have.
Lexi: When I started working in July, people were already working from home. I've never met any my coworkers in person. So, it’s easy to feel distanced from them. And so, a couple of the soft skills that were mentioned previously, part of being adaptable is being able to talk about our pets or favorite foods or our families. It makes it a lot easier to feel like we're talking to another person that's really there for us.
If you work phone support like I do, you must make small talk with the people that you're talking with. That helps to calm them down and helps everybody feel better.
Ed: For experienced leaders and for some of us who worked on countless teams, it's key for us to be able to make eye contact periodically. And look for signs of stress. It's just another way for us to take care of each other. We did it about once a month, but I would highly recommend that teams make sure that they're getting some face time separate from standard team meetings.
Watch the full recording of this webinar here.