The most important soft skill is ... writing
Advent of Remote Work
The ongoing Covid 19 pandemic has caused immense suffering and we’re finally seeing some real hope of solving this crisis. Across the globe, we have adapted to this new normal by wearing face-masks, communicating with our family members over video chat and many other behaviors.
In the technology industry, the pandemic massively accelerated Remote Work. Even in 2019 a majority of respondents to a survey preferred to work remotely temporarily. A big impediment to adoption was getting a critical mass of individuals to try it. As companies have been forced to adopt remote work, this will now become the default going forward. Not having to commute, staying closer to family, flexibility of time are beneficial to most employees. There are also advantages for employers like lowering costs for real estate and hiring across a wider talent pool. Most technology companies (primarily software based) are now going to look for some time-zone overlap for teams … but organizations will shift to a remote-first strategy.
Oddly enough we are still not actually practicing Remote work effectively yet. Many schools are still not open for students and so kids often show up in meetings. Over time we will get more efficient with Remote work.
For being an effective knowledge worker, you need to have a good combination of soft and hard skills. Hard skills are technical skills like proficiency in programming languages. Soft skills include personality traits (work ethic), creativity, problem solving, communication abilities and others.
Communication has always been a very important skill. We interact with peers, managers, and even customers on a day to day basis. Traditional in-person communication actually happens via verbal and non-verbal mechanisms. Non-verbal communication covers body-language, eye-contact, confidence, empathy and how we make others feel. Amy Cuddy presented a ted talk on how non-verbal communication impacts our chances of success. We’re still meeting colleagues over video calls, but managing non-verbal communication has become much harder now. With multiple individuals in a group video call its hard to know who is listening and not multi-tasking. Video calls cause fatigue as well. As we opt for flexible work hours, synchronous meetings will reduce. Hence majority of our communication will be written.
Written communication is the most critical soft-skill for Remote Work.
Balancing writing with other skills is always going to be needed, but those who can master this skill will definitely have more leverage.
Writing itself has multiple forms and functions.
Long form - Expressing complex ideas requires a detailed document. These documents become invaluable reference for decision making and also to understand strategy and roadmap. Amazon internally has a culture of writing 6-pagers. Wikis, analysis, opinions, technical specification documents are all in this broad category.
These documents require research and planning, and are mostly collaborative to author. Even writing blogs on the internet is actually a great exercise since it forces you to think about the details of concepts or ideas that you want to share.
Marketing - Presentations, product marketing, product pitch, and press-releases are forms of marketing materials. This audience here is usually external facing.
These documents are usually concise to highlight a few important concepts without internal complex details.
Personal correspondence - Emails, chat (slack, teams) are also formats that we possibly use most often. Communication here is transient but these tools are the most natural replacements of talking to another individual.
Understanding how to manage time spend on these tools is valuable since by default they are designed to interrupt you very frequently.
Prefer to keep emails and chat messages short. If you need to share an idea that is longer than a few sentences, then a quick blog or wiki page is a better place.
For all writing formats, it is important to share your ideas with a customer-driven mindset. Understand your audience and articulate your message in a style that is relevant for them.
Share your ideas with a customer-driven mindset
Effective communication helps build your personal brand. With globally distributed teams, others can know you by simply reading about your ideas. Better still, where possible write on the internet where your audience is unlimited.
Note for engineers
As you go higher the organizational ladder, soft-skills matter more than technical skills. You are expected to have more influence shaping direction rather than spending active time building things. Engineers are generally introverts and would rather up-level on technical skills rather than soft-skills. However skills like writing are learnable with the right attitude and practice. Just like this post!