The pace of digitalization and the acceleration of technology in the workplace has greatly magnified the demand for technological skills: AI, data science, software development, or at the very least, the ability to use today's technological tools and platforms. Research bears it out: the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that by 2030, technological skills will see the greatest growth in the workplace.
But technology is only one part of what happens in the workplace. Harvard professor of economics David Deming has shown in his research that jobs requiring only technical skills are rapidly being depleted by automation, while jobs requiring only social skills are undervalued because of a large labor supply. However, jobs that require both analytical and interpersonal skills show the greatest employment and wage growth in recent times. "In today's economy, workers must be able to solve complex problems in fluid, rapidly changing, team-based settings," he writes. And it's this balance between hard and soft skills that needs to be addressed.
The World Economic Forum has identified 10 soft skills that people will need for the Fourth Industrial Revolution:
Complex problem solving
Coordinating with others
Judgment and decision making
To these we can add various others such as time management, relationship management, the ability to learn continuously, the ability to handle ambiguity, empathy, and self-awareness. Why are all these skills considered so important?
Soft skills let us work well with others and in a fast-moving environment
"Work" is not just about completing tasks and checking boxes: it has always been about getting along with our co-workers, and increasingly, it is also about getting things done together with our co-workers. Smart employers have always hired for traits such as the ability to collaborate, to work with a team, or to communicate effectively, and this is not going to change just because of COVID-19 and the advent of global-scale remote work. If anything, COVID-19 has made collaboration and communication skills even more critical at all levels of an organization, simply because teams have had to re-learn how to create and interpret social cues on a virtual platform, and will be doing so for many months to come.
Research by the Capgemini Institute has also found that skills related to emotional intelligence—such as self-awareness, influence, relationship management, or empathy—are going to be a must-have in the near future, and that an organization's long-term success will be heavily influenced by having an emotionally intelligent workforce. That data came out well before COVID-19, but with the pandemic and the economic downturn greatly increasing the stressors of work and life in general, emotional intelligence may be one of the most valuable skills people can possess today.
Besides interpersonal interaction, our ability to succeed in today's environment is also reliant upon personal characteristics such as flexibility, creativity, resilience, or even just the ability to deal with ambiguity. COVID-19 has particularly elevated some of these skills: problem-solving and innovation, for example, are critical at a time when organizations are having to redesign their work processes, performance measures, and how entire teams and departments function.
For individuals, especially those in disrupted industries who find themselves automated out of a job—or whose jobs are simply rendered redundant by the pandemic's impact—adaptability and resilience will help them quickly shift to a different role, one that might not require similar hard skills, but where soft skills and knowledge of processes will help them gain a foothold. As it is, the last few months of the great work-from-home experiment have already forced many people to learn how to adapt.
The need to develop and select for soft skills
Soft skills are the most likely of all professional traits to carry across jobs, organizations, or even entire industries, but they are also possibly the hardest of all skill sets to find. Data from LinkedIn shows that the greatest gaps are specifically in critical thinking or problem-solving, adaptability and flexibility, communication, leadership, and innovation and creativity—the skills that are also the hardest to test for or to demonstrate during the hiring process.
The skill gap crosses industries and geographies. For instance, Julie Hotchkiss, Executive Director of People at ACCA, told People Matters that across India and the Asia Pacific region, the accounting profession lacks professional skills as compared to technical know-how—specifically, softer skills such as the ability to build relationships, to analyze and present the information in a compelling manner, and the ability to communicate effectively.
Why might this gap remain so large even though the importance of soft skills has been recognized for years? For a start, learning soft skills is somewhat more complex than learning technology skills. It is partly experiential, meaning that blended learning is more effective: traditional methods such as training and courses have to be combined with more resource-intensive methods such as peer coaching or gamification. It is also a matter of practice and interaction, which is why soft skills are also referred to as professional skills—more experienced people, having had more years to practice their soft skills in the workplace, are typically expected to have a much stronger repertoire of soft skills than recent graduates.
Similarly, hiring for soft skills involves eliciting past experiences and future potential behavior. LinkedIn's research finds that most HR professionals use behavioral or situational questions; McKinsey suggests structured interviews and situational judgement tests; Recruiting Toolbox recommends problem-solving questions. And Indeed suggests that on top of how they answer questions, a candidate's behavior around a job interview, from punctuality to body language to how they interact with staff outside the interview room, can form the basis of a soft skill assessment.
There are, course, some roles that place more emphasis on soft skills: leaders and managers, for example, are hired more for traits such as the ability to solve problems and deal with volatility, than for their technical knowledge. Paul Russell, Managing Director of Luxury Academy, said: “Emotional intelligence is more important at [the middle level of management] than at any other because of the interaction middle managers have with staff...The idea that you can perform well as a middle manager without emotional intelligence is outdated and also very dangerous in the modern workplace.”
Ultimately, work has become more human-centric even as it becomes more technologically enabled. The jobs of the future will need any number of new technical skills, but they will also continue to need all the older, more human, socio-emotional and cognitive skills.