Empathy, emotional intelligence and other soft skills have become vital in how workplace and facilities managers deal with the needs of their teams and their end-users during the Covid-19 crisis, with uncertainty bringing these skills into sharp focus. Bradford Keen reports
As the profession has risen to a unique series of challenges in recent months, the stress, fear and uncertainty caused by Covid-19 has made ’soft’ or ‘people’ skills a key requirement for successful service delivery. And it’s a demand that is unlikely to diminish as we look to support organisations’ next steps in the recovery.
“All managers and leaders have had to step back and realise there are other factors that are affecting their team’s state of mind during the pandemic,” says Colin Kimber, associate director at Pareto FM. “We’re all going through something quite significant right now; everybody’s having a very different reaction to it and that’s affecting how people approach their work and cope with their environment. You need to think about the needs of every individual and you need to think about your own needs.”
Managers, says Kimber, need to learn how to be more self-aware (see previous feature) and gain mastery over their emotions. “I’ve had to get to grips with how I’m dealing with the situation and how that might affect the way I’m interacting with my customers and team members,” he notes.
Kimber takes time to reflect and replay meetings and interactions in order to “notice things that I might not have seen the first time around” such as, for example, team members who are relatively reserved or disengaged.
Martin Stead, managing director at Sewell FM, while arguing that they are “hard ones to practice”, notes the importance of soft skills. Organisations with a people-centric culture, he says, have tended to thrive in the crisis. “If you’ve got your company culture right, all the people should reflect that through their actions.”
The pandemic has highlighted personal qualities such as a willingness to be flexible and provide emotional support, which Stead says should become necessary traits in the employee recruitment process.
“People are different, jobs are different, and no personality trait is good or bad in a vacuum”
“Technical competence or skills might get you an interview, but attitude and softer skills get you the job,” says Stead, “and it has never been more important than now. If you want people in a service industry to smile, we need to employ people who smile.”
Covid-19 has exacerbated uncertainty in all aspects of life and work. “We were plunged into a completely unprecedented situation and everyone had questions,” says Julie Kortens, former IWFM chair and managing director at Konnected People. “Yet for several weeks, no one was able to provide concrete answers. That uncertainty has shone a spotlight on how important employee health and wellbeing is and the soft skills integral to maintaining them.”
Indeed, the most pressing uncertainty now concerns returning to the workplace. People are afraid of how it might increase their chance of infection. The challenge is not only to “identify and mitigate these risks” but “provide reassurance, understanding and empathy”, says Mark Whittaker, FM solutions consultant at Thomson FM and a non-executive director at the IWFM.
Training relevant skills
There are five pillars to emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-control, empathy, relationship building and self-motivation. Kimber says for FMs, “the ability to build relationships with people is incredibly important because you have such a multitude of stakeholders and you need to be able to communicate with all of them”.
Kortens emphasises the value of communication skills: “If we are moving into a post-coronavirus world, people aren’t going to feel completely secure for quite some time and communication is going to remain essential.”
Being empathetic and observant are vital to being able to notice changes in the behaviour of others and offer support, Stead explains, adding that client-facing staff will need to be patient and able to “diffuse potential conflict situations” as some customers are likely to demand ‘business as usual’ despite the pandemic-related restrictions in place.
Such softer skills can be “teased out” of most people, believes Stead, as many won’t have previously had the opportunity to develop them. However, moving into a new role or experiencing a significant life event, such as becoming a parent, can also bring these skills to the fore.
One cause for celebration is that FM professionals have shown throughout the pandemic how capable and skilled they are. Conrad Dinsmore, senior project manager – FS&R Centre of Excellence at ISS Facility Services UK, says that the right leadership and management has meant “we have seen people transition from capital project roles to supporting data management, and operational managers adapt to Covid-19 experts and offer comfort and security for those who are re-entering the workplace”.
The pandemic has also shown how quickly “our whole way of working can be turned upside down”, says Clare Ferguson, HR business partner and wellbeing ambassador at Arcus FM. For Ferguson, an important element of successful deployment of soft management skills is a realisation from the start that one size definitely will not fit all.
“We need to quickly and effectively redesign content and get it to all our employees at the point they most need it,” she says. “We also need more individualisation in our L&D content. We know that different colleagues responded in very different ways to the crisis. We must therefore continue to not take a ‘sheep dip’ approach to how we develop our teams and ensure that the learners can customise their development to best support their own needs.”
“We’re all going through something quite significant right now and everybody’s having a very different reaction to it”
Soft skills: learned or taught?
Another critical element of acceptance is for organisations to accept that their managers will embrace their personal soft skill development at different speeds.
“We need to differentiate between the profession and people,” Kortens explains. “Some people find these so-called ‘soft skills’ come naturally to them; others have to work at them throughout their careers.
“We’ve all met intelligent, well-qualified people who struggle when it comes to empathy. On the other hand, plenty of people have extremely well-developed emotional intelligence but not the skills or credentials to gain the respect of the workforce.”
Kortens adds: “People are different, jobs are different, and no personality trait is good or bad in a vacuum. People in the profession have always needed to strike the right balance, perhaps now we’re just more aware of it.”
An individual’s soft skills tend to be linked to personality, but Ferguson says everyone can gain from training in these more people-focused approaches. Using personality profiling, for example, “helps our managers to gain a much better understanding of themselves including their preferred communication style and whether they are a visionary leader, a relationship leader or a result-driven leader. This knowledge enables them to be mindful of their strengths and weaknesses and, therefore, what soft skills will come more naturally and which will require more development”.
The pandemic’s long-term effects
“The impact of the lockdown, I suspect, will be far-reaching,” says Whittaker. “No one really knows what the new norm will be. However, as well as technical knowledge requirements there will also be a need for facilities management professionals to effectively empathise and appropriately react with new situations around them – and this may require different skill sets than currently.”
Longer-term effects on service delivery, Whittaker says, will depend on how long social distancing measures remain in place. Demand for an office will persist, but employees will also want their employers to “facilitate a better work/life balance for their people”. This could result in seeing our colleagues less often on a day-to-day basis, and visiting the workplace for specific tasks that demand collaboration and productivity.
Dinsmore predicts a change in the way the industry recruits. “Theoretical skill sets will continue to be important but our ability to maintain relationships, prove initiative, develop leadership and drive team work will be crucial to the impact we have on our customers and users of a work space.”
Soft skills, he adds, should be developed with flexibility in mind. “For every soft skill, we will need to be able to use it in a face-to-face scenario and on technology platforms whilst our ability to work as a team, communicate, show leadership and our work ethic will need to be equally as impactful across all work arenas.”
Of significant importance is FM’s raised profile in the wake of the pandemic in the eyes of both the general public and government bodies. They “now understand that people in our industry are key workers,” says Kortens. “It is people in our sector who underpin organisational performance and success and if in the future anyone doubts how fundamental we are to the nation’s industry and economy, we can refer them to the past few months.”
Ferguson says FM has performed well during the pandemic but expectations of it have increased, even as future budgets will likely be challenged, requiring more for clients using fewer resources. The result will require “creativity, adaptability, commercial acumen and critical thinking within our account management teams so they can solve complex problems for our clients making use of our integrated offer”.
However, a focus on soft skills could be a boon for the profession when trying to attract the next generation of workplace and facilities managers. Young people want to work for firms that “take care of their people”, says Kimber. They want to work for organisations that prioritise social values. “If it becomes widely known that facilities managers need high levels of emotional intelligence and soft skills, I think it’d be more attractive because younger people think in this manner already.
For younger people with common sense who enjoy trying to understand people and find solutions, Kimber says: “FM would be an excellent choice.”