From hardware to soft skills: How IT has evolved in the shift to flexible work


One of the unspoken truths of working in IT is that tech skills are sometimes the least complicated part of the job. More often, it’s the human side of the equation that trips us up. It turns out, the role of IT is just as much about connecting with your fellow humanoid as it is about solving tech problems.

The human side of IT

Steve Ostrowski, head of corporate communications at the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), says an emphasis on empathy continues to be a growing concern in the IT world. “The technical skills are still important, but they've almost taken a backseat to the personal skills, being empathetic, being a good listener. It's often easier to teach the technical skills than it is the personal skills.”

And in the age of hybrid and remote work — as most of us can attest — the human side of work has become even more delicate to navigate. Technical support is a prime example. But approaching the issue with a humans-in-the-loop mindset can make you as an IT pro a more efficient and effective problem solver.

Flexible work is making more work for IT

To compound the issue, according to a recent study commissioned by GoTo and conducted by Frost and Sullivan, 76% of IT professionals surveyed say they are experiencing a large increase in workload because of remote- and hybrid-work setups. And 43% say IT has become more difficult overall as a result of these new, flexible ways of working.

Another recent study conducted by Ivanti might point to a source of this friction. One in five IT professionals say lack of communication is the most difficult part of performing their work remotely. So not only has the workload increased, but connecting and engaging with your employees and customers remains a major hurdle for dispersed teams.

This doesn’t surprise James Stanger, Chief Technology Evangelist at CompTIA. Stanger says that whereas in person you might be able to see with your own eyes where a problem has occurred, now, for the most part, you have to get your information secondhand. “You now must figure out ways to gather information through someone else. It requires a lot of empathy.”

With hybrid work being a top priority for many workers and a major factor in a company’s ability to recruit and retain talent, the demand for top-notch empathy skills in IT is only going to increase.

Optimizing for empathy

Stanger says that the most effective tool for an IT professional is how carefully they can read the person they are trying to assist. “I think the best IT people are the ones who can tell through the timbre of someone's voice how they're thinking and where they're going.”

No one is a mind reader, but thinking about the context that a person is working in, and how that might change their mindset, can be a good place to start an interaction. Just envisioning their office setup isn’t enough. Taking into account the physical demands of a colleague’s job as well as the neurological context that they are in can help you approach an interaction from a place of empathy.

The foundational steps to using empathy in the workspace can sound really basic, especially when you approach most tasks from a problem-solving mindset, but accessing empathy doesn’t always come naturally.

One easy place to start is with curiosity. This can be as simple as asking a person to expound on a statement instead of reacting to it. Peter Bregman, CEO of an executive coaching company, writes in the Harvard Business Review that curiosity is the “response that’s important and necessary before empathy.” You don’t have to get your colleague’s whole life story; just approach statements with an open question. Bregman references a moment where a client told him, “I’m feeling deeply unsettled.” Instead of responding with his own state, Bregman simply asked, “Tell me more.”

Another foundational step is to be generous in your assumptions. Simply, give the benefit of the doubt. Working from a place of compassion is even more essential when we’re physically separated from each other. This has a lot to do with the basic way that humans communicate. Body language does a lot of work, and when we can’t fully observe each other (like through a video screen), it’s so much easier for misinterpretations to develop.

Reconnecting with yourself

Remember, this is hard work! Jobs where empathy is really core are some of the most draining. Again and again studies of those in healthcare and journalism show the cost of compassion fatigue is real.

And like any skillset, it takes work and effort to cultivate expertise. Making sure you’re considering the whole system — hardware, software, the operator and their “software” — will help you approach the task with tools for all the parts of the job.

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