Can We Build Better Communication Skills In A Hybrid Workplace?

Traditional workplace communication skills encompass writing, speaking, listening, questioning, and explaining things well, among other abilities. They’re often an essential factor in performance management processes and evaluations. Communicating well is fundamental to high workplace performance and the foundation of other skills like influence, leadership, working well with others, and even emotional intelligence. These are all characteristics of future leaders or so-called high-potential employees.

Schools don’t prepare students for the interpersonal workplace. While a few programs require some proficiency with these skills, this learning is noticeably absent from other curricula, including highly specialized science, technology, engineering, and math disciplines. Most employees building careers will hone their skills on the job.

Employers also rarely hire people for their communication abilities. Instead, these skills manifest as differences between qualified candidates. Hiring managers try to find the best and brightest applicants that fit best with their teams, among other criteria.

Interpersonal Skills Training

Developing interpersonal skills and improving organizational performance will often fall to human resource professionals. Ideally, they assess the needs in the context of work and then create solutions to address them. Training solutions are often a compromise between urgency, priority, budget, and scope.

For decades, training needs for interpersonal skills were predictable. Organizations routinely hire new employees. After a few years on the job, some employees realize they need help. More likely, managers will recommend improving employees’ skills as they coach and assess performance. Occasionally, leaders see a widespread deficiency in communication skills and request a training intervention.

As a result, many training organizations have a pipeline of sorts, with some employees needing interpersonal skills training at all times. The predictability in large organizations is so well-established that they offer classes on a schedule. Many of them contract with vendors who specialize in teaching these foundational workplace skills.

The New Challenges Of The Hybrid Workplace

When employees work in offices alongside managers and others, interpersonal attributes dominate workplaces. Coworkers meet and interact, developing relationships in the context of work. They deliver presentations, make persuasive arguments, and debate naturally, with technology taking a minor or supporting role. Meetings around a table are commonplace, even if speakerphones and screen-sharing technologies accommodate others from different locations.

The hybrid workplace is just different. It effectively blends people who work together in offices with people who work remotely, often from home. An employee may work every day in the same place or alternate between locations. Some team members will be in the office on any given day, and some will not. They all meet electronically in the digital workplace using technology, from email and the telephone to instant messaging, audio or video meetings, and collaborative technologies.

The new challenge that employees face in the hybrid workplace is complex. To stand out or even succeed, they must continue to excel in all traditional encounters with leaders, customers, coworkers, and subordinates. They also need to be effective in virtual interactions that rely on technology. Moreover, they must now be adept at doing both at the same time, whether they’re physically in a room with others or alone at their computer. Increasingly, decision-makers, influential leaders, and other essential parties in any meeting may all be in different locations.

The Problem With Existing Solutions

On the one hand, the hybrid situation looks like a natural part of workplace evolution. The practice of teleworking grew 159% between 2005 and 2017, so workplaces were becoming increasingly hybrid. Left alone, people would naturally adapt to new technology without significant stress. Those with highly developed interpersonal skills would continue to apply their talents while working in the evolving workplace.

On the other hand, only about 3.6% of employees in the U.S. worked from home half-time or more in 2018. If a hybrid workplace was emerging, it was doing so very slowly. Few training organizations focused on developing interpersonal skills for the hybrid workplace simply because it hadn’t been an issue.

I call 2020 the year of telework because the COVID-19 pandemic pushed many employers into it. As they plan future operations, some employers expect to blend office work and telework outright. Others will simply be hybrid because more employees will work from home any given day than before the pandemic. Some experts suggest the number of employees using telework half-time or more may exceed 25%.

It’s only in the shadows of the pandemic that a hybrid workplace demands the attention of learning and development professionals. Existing solutions are inadequate. Few, if any, address the demands of today’s complex work environment.

The Challenge For Workplaces And Training

We know there’s a skills gap. We see it every time someone disrupts a meeting with a technical faux pas or when people talk over one another, only to then wait in silence for the others to speak. More evidence appears when people forget to unmute before speaking or accidentally interject because they’ve failed to mute. The last-minute soundcheck in the middle of an ongoing meeting heads my list of poor online meeting skills.

Even highly skilled communicators become tongue-tied and lose concentration when dealing with technical issues. They forget their role as leaders, influencers, or persuaders and become troubleshooters. Emotional intelligence and the logic needed for troubleshooting are independent aptitudes. Multitasking between the two while attempting to access online interfaces isn’t natural for anyone. As a result, presenters often face barriers to communication that project unprofessionalism and get in the way of success. The examples are endless and reflect only a part of the problem.

Training seems to be an appropriate solution to the hybrid environment’s challenges. Do we need an engraved invitation to begin planning for the inevitable workplace intervention? If budgets and other priorities prevent moving forward, we can at least start assessing the needs and effective ways of addressing them.

Learning and Development organizations fight a perception of being order-takers. We see this situation unfolding, and it’s an opportunity to get out in front and lead.

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