Learning Virtual Soft Skills in COVID America

Working at any level of government requires a wide variety of soft-skills that are never taught in a classroom and have to be learned from interacting with people by working to solve problems to reach goals effectively. My internship with the Urban Redevelopment Authority this summer has been no exception. However, the virtual nature of the internship has changed the way through which I have used and built upon my existing soft skills. Typically when we think of “soft skills” we think of things that we use to be more successful while we interact with people in direct settings like offices or in classrooms, but when everyone is at home the way you use those soft skills change quite a bit.

One example of a soft skill that I have been able to develop through my internship experience this summer has been my communication skills, which I have had to alter to fit my virtual environment. In past positions I had become accustomed to learning the ropes for that position in person, through meetings and by asking questions of my co-workers around me, but when you are working from home this learning style doesn’t happen as easily. In this regard I have been able to learn how and when to effectively ask the important questions through texts and Microsoft teams messages, when to schedule longer meetings to solve problems, and when questions can wait until the next meeting. I think this also is indicative of how interacting on a team looks different in a virtual workplace overall because the open collaboration that I have become accustomed to in office settings is harder to organize, so each member of the team is able to specialize and take personal liberties on their tasks to eventually reconvene with the larger group. At the URA this summer I have definitely been able to learn more about how to make the most of those collaborative sessions and to make the most of my individual tasks before those sessions in order to work as a successful member of the team. Working remotely within a team it become clear how important it is to take advantage of every minute of the often limited amount of time that all team members have to get on a zoom or teams call together.

In regards to “technical” skills, this summer has given me many new technical skills that I may have never learned without being in a virtual workplace. The entirely virtual nature of working for the URA has required me to hone my computer skills immensely and has allowed me to put the data manipulation skills that I learned in my economics classes into practice every day. Being able to virtually convey all of the information and services that the URA typically is able to offer in-person has become a top priority for the organization. As government employees and constituents alike are largely staying in their homes, this has made traditional in-person interactions much more difficult and thus forced everyone to adapt. This has caused changes like the URA’s monthly public board meetings being moved to a zoom meeting format and the URA’s website  bulking up the information and resources that it provides virtually. I have been able to assist in the large task of creating virtual “dashboards” to provide updates regarding programs the URA offers that are simple and understandable to Pittsburgh government officials and constituents alike. This has required a honing of my skills using excel and other data platforms and an understanding of how to simply convey complex measurements through the software at our disposal, all of which will be invaluable in any future position I hold.

In addition to the specific skills that I have been able to learn and build onto, some of the core tenants of the way I conduct myself day to day, such as my leadership style, have also had to change with the times. My approach to leadership has always been to lead by example and to do my best to “lift as I climb” in the words of Angela Davis, meaning that as I progress forward I am always looking to lead in a manner that will help everyone progress as a group towards our collective goals and do my best to allow for growth towards individual goals as well. This type of leadership approach has always required a large amount of personal connection with team-members in order to understand  what each person excels at and what their individual goals are so that I can delegate accordingly, but in a virtual workplace this type of interaction and connection is much more difficult to achieve. Typically when I have been able to work in-person with my co-workers it allows for leadership in a direct sense where I can take charge and push the ball forward for the group but our virtual workplace has required even more delegation than normal so the in-person leadership strategies I am used to deploying don’t always translate. This forced me to take a different approach which has been to still focus on leading by example but doing so through my individual projects instead of through direct leadership during collaborative project meetings. I have been happy with my contributions through my work on my individual tasks and projects and have been able to leverage that work to help guide the overall outcomes of our team, all of which will translate into my leadership style when our current crisis passes.

As mentioned throughout, the virtual nature of my internship has forced me to reassess a lot of the practices that I normally rely on in the workplace just due to the general ambiguity that comes from working separately from coworkers. When I first began my internship with the URA I felt a bit uncertain of how I would get up to speed virtually without being able to have any in-person orientation or any kind of training on the job where I could ask questions and get quick answers, but I was able to slowly figure out how to troubleshoot on my own and ask questions about URA jargon or software that I was unfamiliar with when I needed to. Another huge part of helping navigate the uncertainty that comes with starting a position virtually has been that all of the people I have been able to work with at the URA have been so open to answering questions and understanding about helping to get me up to speed, which has been hugely helpful and has made this summer substantially less stressful. Overall, this summer has forced me to rethink how I do a lot of things that I would have taken for granted or not put a lot of thought into a year ago, which has allowed me to reflect on what strategies work in a virtual workplace and also how I can take those strategies and use them in any setting going forward. In the long run, despite the downsides and uncertainty of this summer, I believe that I have gained many different skills and a new perspective from my internship that I would not have if things had progressed in a reality without COVID.

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