Important Soft Skills and Leadership Practices for Navigating the Virtual Workplace As the workplace shifts, leaders need to align their soft skills and leadership practices with those changes too.

By Thomas Smale

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

fizkes | Getty Images

It is an understatement to say that the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the business world. As many organizations have had to pivot to remote work, both management and staff have been forced to adjust quickly to the new realities of working virtually. According to a recent study by Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom, "an incredible 42 percent of the U.S. labor force is now working from home full-time," with this "enlarged group of work-from-home employees" accounting "for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity."

The long-term impact of this historic shift to virtual workplaces has yet to be realized, of course, but one real-time challenge facing almost every organization and business unit is being felt already: how to navigate the new realities of a virtual workplace. The answer lies in the soft skills, those interpersonal, problem-solving, critical thinking and leadership practices that drive such non-standardized, difficult-to-quantify traits and connections.

Leaders have had to navigate steep learning curves to keep themselves and their staff productive, focused and healthy during the pandemic. With this learning curve in mind, here are some important soft skills and leadership tactics that you will need for navigating the new virtual workplace.

Related: The Top 5 Leadership Soft Skills You Need to Empower Your Team


Leadership gurus from Guy Kawasaki to Patrick Lencioni underscore this message: Trustworthiness is always critical to leading high-performing teams. Without trust, workplaces become defined by artificial harmony (or worse, toxic positivity), ambiguity of purpose and ego. As Lencioni points out, these conditions inevitably result in a lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability and inattention to results that can be devastating to performance and organizational culture. Virtual workplaces are the ultimate test of trustworthiness. In the best-case scenario, everyone is engaged and ready to work during the daily or bi-weekly Zoom meeting. But questions inevitably linger about what happens during those other hours when off-screen responsibilities and distractions come into play?

The best way to optimize trustworthiness within your virtual workplace is to openly communicate that you trust your staff to get the work done on time even while managing a quick run to the grocery store or mid-afternoon break to walk the dog. Acknowledging these challenges openly and giving staff the autonomy to take care of their physical and emotional needs while staying productive is the ideal balance when navigating a virtual workplace. Working within a trusting culture allows people to feel productive and valuable professionally while caring for themselves and their families.


Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Unfortunately, many leaders still see empathy as a soft skill that gets in the way of making tough decisions or leading a company through challenging times. But as Maëlle Gavet argues in her recent book Trampled by Unicorns: Big Tech's Empathy Problem and How to Fix It, nothing could be farther from the truth. Gavet asserts that "If you define corporate empathy as the ability of a company and its leadership to understand what's happening in the world around them —and how their decisions impact people inside and outside the company —I think you actually have a better company."

The reality is, the stress associated with Covid-19, along with the challenges of working from home, are taking a significant toll on American families. As the American Psychological Association points out, 70 percent of American adults self-report that work and economic issues are a leading source of stress in their lives. In some cases, these stressors can be equal to or higher than concerns for basic needs, access to health care services and missing out on major personal or family milestones. Approaching employees and coworkers from a place of understanding surrounding their current environments and stressors can not only reduce friction but increase communication and productivity across an organization.

Related: Why Empathy Is One of the Most Overlooked Skills in Business

Get creative and keep communication pathways open

If anything positive comes out of the widespread deployment of virtual workplaces, it might be the impetus to rethink the traditional meeting format. The bottom line is that one- or two-hour video conferences do not work. Attention spans and lower back muscles are strained, post-meeting productivity drops dramatically and frustration levels spike.

In the place of long virtual meetings, create a schedule of short, project- or team-focused check-in meetings, virtual water cooler chats or Q&A sessions. Keep the list of invitees to the minimum size needed to gather relevant information and make informed decisions, and ensure the conversation remains focused and purposeful. Meeting frequency might increase in the short term, but meeting effectiveness, productivity and staff wellness will benefit as a result.

Restructure decision-making and problem-solving

Having the confidence to move away from a top-down or centralized decision-making model is a challenging thing to master. But with decentralized workplaces comes an opportunity to disperse some non-critical decision-making to team leaders or even to individual team members. The result, if managed carefully, provides immediate and long-term benefits to most businesses.

Sharing decision-making responsibility does not mean throwing people into the metaphoric deep end of the pool. A virtual workplace does, however, provide an excellent opportunity to teach your staff how a decision-making matrix functions, how to build a simple but effective root-cause analysis, or how to take advantage of a broader reach of experience from across your business unit to make slower, more fully evidence-based decisions.

Never underestimate the power of a smile

Authentic leaders know that a self-deprecating comment or playful aside is not only a great icebreaker but also goes a long way to enchanting people as well as keeping them engaged and connected. The pandemic is not a laughing matter, and neither is unemployment caused by the lockdown or the protests erupting across the country. But an unexpected smile or flash of levity provides what psychologists call "a moment of benevolent amnesia," a personal invitation to push the stress and anxiety from the front of our brain for even a few seconds.

In short, a brief pivot to playfulness, when used appropriately, is a powerful coping mechanism. A quick all-team survey of "What are we binging on Netflix these days?" or "What did we eat for breakfast this morning?" takes only a few seconds to answer but can lift the feeling of isolation and dread that can become pervasive when working from home.

The Covid pandemic has turned the workplace upside down, moving millions of people out of offices to kitchen tables, basement rec rooms and home offices. Work is anything but business-as-usual these days, but relying more on soft skills as complements to traditional business and technical skills can go a long way to keeping your staff and business engaged, healthy and productive.

Related: Recession-Proof Your Career With These 3 Skills

Wavy Line
Thomas Smale

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor

Founder of FE International

Thomas Smale co-founded FE International in 2010. He has been interviewed on podcasts, blogs and also spoken at a number of industry events on online businesses, exit strategy and selling businesses.

Editor's Pick

'Catastrophic': Here's What You Should Know About the Debt Ceiling Crisis — And How a Default Could Impact Your Business
I Helped Grow 4 Unicorns Over 10 Years That Generated $18 Billion in Online Revenues. Here's What I've Learned.
Want to Break Bad Habits and Supercharge Your Business? Use This Technique.
Don't Have Any Clients But Need Customer Testimonials? Follow These 3 Tricks To Boost Your Rep.
Why Are Some Wines More Expensive Than Others? A Top Winemaker Gives a Full-Bodied Explanation.

Related Topics


The Real Reason Why The Return to Office Movement is Failing is Revealed in New Study

There is a vivid sign of the disconnect between employees and their workplace, a glaring indication that companies need to revise their scripts to improve their hybrid and remote work policies.


'That '70s Show' Star Convicted on Two Counts of Rape. He 'Drugged' His Victims.

Danny Masterson was accused of forcibly raping three women at different times between 2001 and 2003. The jury reached a verdict on two counts but was deadlocked on the third.

Business News

The World's Richest Man Just Surpassed a $200 Billion Fortune

Bernard Arnault is just the third man in history to reach this landmark.

Business News

Raccoon Adorably Orders A Donut From Dunkin' Drive Thru: 'Little Gentleman'

The hilarious clip has garnered over 21.3 million views on TikTok.

Money & Finance

3 Ways to Create Multiple (Big) Streams of Income

Here are three ways to create multiple streams of income. These strategies require effort and resources but offer significant financial potential.

Business News

7 of the 10 Most Expensive Cities to Live in the U.S. Are in One State

A new report by U.S. News found that San Diego is the most expensive city to live in for 2023-2024, followed by Los Angeles. New York City didn't even rank in the top 10.