ABB is honing soft skills to lead in a post-pandemic workplace
Pandemic lockdowns have changed the notion of a workplace forever. ABB is training its leaders to support the wellbeing and engagement of employees wherever they choose to set up their screen.
Workplace flexibility is the new norm, and ABB Australia is providing its leaders and people with flexible resources that help them look out for one another and bring out the best in high-performing teams — virtually. With almost two-thirds of the company’s 750-strong workforce working online from home, a good grasp of so-called soft skills becomes essential.
“There’s been an interesting shift from traditional safety concerns to the risks that come with working from home,” says Darren Liddle, ABB Australia’s Country Health, Safety and Environment (HSE) Manager. Although remote working helps keep people away from potential Covid-19 exposure, he says there is a very real risk of emotional disconnection that can leave employees feeling wobbly.
“Wobbly is a good way to describe it at the moment,” says Liddle. “People are teetering, a little bit reactive, and we need to make sure our managers are comfortable helping in that space.”
Beverly Stacey, Country HR Manager for Australia (pictured above) says the Australian Leadership Team, or ALT, has to lead by example, and since January it has been participating in a year-long coaching and mentoring program designed in-house in Australia. In collaboration with ABB’s global learning development hub, she has also developed a pack of tailored training “bites” — short online sessions that anyone in the company can access at will — “you can do them on your phone while you’re walking at lunchtime”, says Stacey.
Topics include: High-impact coaching; Transforming ideas into solutions; Developing your EQ; Developing others through mentoring, high-impact feedback and listening; Communicating for leadership; and Conversations to inspire performance.
Taking time to communicate is Priority No. 1
Leading by example, means the ALT is constantly checking with each other and with individuals in their teams. Aside from regular scheduled communications — such as town halls for the whole company, Monday catch ups for individual teams, month meetings that bring each of the businesses together with the ALT — informal catch-ups are encouraged. Close-knit service groups tend to dial in daily for a run-through of their to-dos and challenges, and managers have become alert to the importance of simply calling people who may have missed a meeting, or who seemed quieter than usual.
“We coach our managers to ask the question, ‘Are you OK?’” or ‘How are you actually going?’ says Stacey, but they don’t have to fix any issues that they elicit. “That’s not their job,” she says, “and it may not be appropriate for the person who’s having difficulties.” Instead the company has implemented an Employee Assistance Program, offering counseling at different levels for different interventions, and has recently employed mental health officers skilled in finding the right solutions to help people.
Part of the challenge, says Stacey, had been that empathetic managers were reluctant to ask people how they were, because they felt ill-equipped to deal with the answers they might get. Training in soft skills plus having professional backup has boosted their confidence.
Appreciating the diversity of individual needs
It’s hard to recreate ABB’s fantastic, collaborative work environment online. Part of its unique appeal is that, as an international company, “ABB is a big promoter of hiring people from different countries and having them move around the world to gain experience,” says Liddle.
This diversity, he says, leads to great conversations, “some of the best work that you do in the workplace, and especially at ABB, doesn’t necessarily happen during an office meeting. It happens next to the coffee machine when you start talking to someone from another part of the business and you realise their experience could be relevant to your project”.
Everyone misses those off-the-cuff interactions, he says, and for some expats, the ABB workplace is like their Australian family. For leaders to be able to talk to their people about what they’re missing and how they can achieve a similar camaraderie online, or in part-time office attendance as lockdowns are relaxed, is vital.
Resolving differences also doesn’t occur as naturally online as it does in personal proximity. Minor disputes can escalate if you don’t “see” the good will and good humour of your counterpart and realise that the difference in opinion is not accompanied by any animosity.
Stacey says she’s not monitoring people’s use of the online resources, and does not plan to report on their uptake or success, but she has noticed behaviour change.
“This morning I attended a particular team leadership meeting online, and they were having a very open conversation about what wasn’t working in their communications with each other. It was great to hear!”
Recognising emotions that are close to the surface
Liddle says the second wave of lockdowns due to the Delta strain of the Covid virus has provoked a different response from employees compared to the first: “I think everyone was expecting it to be over, but this just keeps dragging on.” Although the rollout of vaccines that will allow greater freedom of movement and return to the workplace for those who make that choice is now progressing apace, he says, “The general vibe is that people aren’t handling this period of restrictions as well as the first wave. But on the positive side they’re also more emotive and willing to tell you when they’re struggling”.
The ALT, coached to segregate work, home and relaxation activities, now feels confident to talk through those needs with employees. Liddle says he joked at a recent town hall about how he’s started surfing again since the pandemic began, “because I find that if I’m out in four- or five-foot waves, I’m too busy worrying about not drowning to think about work”.
Building mental resilience
Making time for exercise, getting enough sleep, practicing kindness towards yourself and others, and being grateful for what is going well, are some of the mental health habits that ABB leaders are trying to encourage in others.
“We’ve been really fortunate at ABB in that we haven’t had to put any staff off due to Covid,” says Liddle. Stacey adds, “We’re the busiest we’ve ever been because the mining industry just keeps going, and everybody still needs power, water and gas.” So company employees can be pretty confident about the longevity of their roles in supporting such essential requirements with ABB technology and service.
Now, as individuals absorb the ABB-designed modules of resilience training, or how to harness their minds for peak performance, they are developing greater awareness of how they communicate and how they perceive what people tell them. Liddle explains, “It comes into that mindfulness space, of just learning to observe, allowing other people to communicate, and then either giving feedback or offering some solutions.”
Such ‘soft skills’ are of course valuable in face-to-face situations, but in the online world, having a heightened sense of the wellbeing and working style of your colleagues and reports, and how to respond in order to boost their capability and confidence, is a critical, differentiating success factor.
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