The pandemic-driven rapid hybridisation of the workforce has put many traditional ideas about work and ways of working under the microscope. One of these is the importance of soft skills.
A report from Deloitte Access Economics found technology, globalisation and demographic shifts are driving a demand for soft skills in the workplace, such as communication, teamwork, problem-solving, emotional judgement and professional ethics. It goes on to forecast that soft skill-intensive occupations will account for two-thirds of all jobs by 2030 (compared to half of jobs in 2000).
In a white paper on the subject, TAFE NSW also concludes soft skills are non-negotiable. “Without these soft or ‘human’ capabilities, a business cannot empower its people to meet future market challenges or adapt to rapid change,” the report says.
Dr Marion Steel, formerly of Deakin University Business and Law School and a freelance consultant and mentor in marketing and career support, says that while a shift in the importance of soft skills was underway prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the hybridisation of the workforce that has followed the pandemic and the switch to ‘work from anywhere’ has accelerated that process.
Dr Steel also refers to soft skills as “professional or daily working skills”. “We've been calling them soft skills only as a way of differentiating them from hard or technical skills,” she says. “They include all those ways we think about what we're doing: how we solve problems, research, think and engage with others. And we carry them with us everywhere.”
Nicole Gorton, director at recruitment agency Robert Half, lists effective communication, resilience, empathy, collaboration, self-awareness and intuition as the most in-demand soft skills in the workplace today. Of those, Gorton says verbal communication skills, which have long been recognised as valuable, have evolved from being thought of as speaking-based to encompassing the ability to listen and question.
“People have this perception that communication is all talking, but actually, it's listening,” she says. “Questioning and listening is one of the most important skills today – understanding what type of open-ended questions you can ask to yield the right information to make sure that you're engaging your team and collaborating with the people around you.”
With the pace of change in workplaces only increasing, Gorton says resilience and the ability to embrace change – something that doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people – has elevated in importance.
Without soft skills, Dr Steel says it’s difficult to do most jobs successfully. “You can go anywhere from McDonald’s to being a CEO and find a suite of technical skills required,” she explains. “But soft skills make the difference between being able to use our technical skills effectively or not.”
She uses the analysis of data as an example. While the process is now often done by computer programs, it is a person’s soft skills that enable them to interpret, share and apply the information the data provides.
Hybrid working has “highlighted a number of gaps in our thinking about the softer professional skills we hadn't considered before”, says Dr Steel.
One of the key shifts in the post-pandemic workplace has been the need to work consultatively or collaboratively with others virtually rather than in person. Dr Steel explains that while there are some great technological solutions to enable this, as ‘Zoom fatigue’ has set in, the skill set required to use them effectively has seen an increase in the demand for multi-channel communication capabilities.
“In a face-to-face situation, we use multiple cues and pieces of information – we listen to what you say, we look at what your expressions are and we read the information you're presenting to us,” she says. “We'll be doing two or three things in order to gather information, make decisions or contribute back. When you're in a Zoom environment, it immediately restricts at least one of those.”
In today’s hybrid working environment, she suggests we've got to allow for one or more of our channels of information gathering being unavailable and make things as succinct and easy to follow as possible. “If you’re running a virtual meeting, have a shared document people can access, as well as a chat box to make notes and for everyone to use emojis when they've got no visual sight of each other.
“People who can actually think their way around how to showcase information succinctly, prepare something to share in advance and ensure the meeting is as quick as possible will succeed.”
In a survey commissioned by Flexiworks about the evolution of hybrid work, 58% of respondents said they preferred collaborating face to face with colleagues, and in-person was also the preferred method for giving and receiving instructions.
Dr Steel says businesses need to be aware of such preferences and ensure time is scheduled accordingly to allow employees to best utilise their soft skills in the workplace.
“Face-to-face time needs to be more wisely used,” she says. “Managers need to understand the difference between important face-to-face time versus scheduled face-to-face time.”
By that, explains Dr Steel, formal meetings are ideal to summarise, review and confirm decisions, while informal conversations tend to be the time new ideas emerge, and are best done in person. “The serendipitous moments are where we generate ideas – and they’re much more difficult to get in a virtual environment,” she says.
Ensuring some face-to-face time is reserved for building informal connections can also help to strengthen soft skills like empathy and emotional intelligence, plus build workplace culture – something that is in danger of being lost in a hybrid working environment. More than 70% of respondents to the Flexiworks survey said working remotely has meant colleagues don’t know each other as well as they used to.
To find employees with the right soft skills for any role, says Gorton, a business must first define the people skills, outside of the technical competencies, that are most relevant for that position. “Once they have done that, they’ll want to measure how the person has developed, portrayed and integrated those competencies historically, through what we call a competency-based interview,” she explains.
This involves asking candidates to provide examples of ways they’ve used their soft skills in previous jobs. Gorton says this evidence-based approach is better at drawing out the truth than asking hypothetical questions such as, “What would you do if..?”
“Anybody can answer questions about the future,” she says. “It gives you a bit of an insight, but what you want to be able to do is see evidence of how they've done it in the past.”