Soft Skills in the Workplace

Developing employees’ soft skills should remain a high focus for small businesses looking to remain competitive and reach next-level growth.

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Soft skills are often referred to as “intangible” interpersonal, transferable skills that help people successfully collaborate, influence others, and communicate. Examples of these using skills in the workplace include practicing good communication, active listening, time management, and interpersonal skills. In contrast, “hard skills” are honed abilities that people acquire and enhance through practice, repetition, and education.

No matter what business you’re in, the ability to work with and connect with people is a strong point of differentiation between success and failure. The growth and development of employees’ soft skills should remain a high focus for small businesses looking to remain competitive and reach next-level growth.

Research on soft skills

by 2030, people will work 26% more hours on jobs that require social and emotional skills.

While it’s well-established that employees with strong soft skills are needed for business to succeed, that need still is growing, and has been exacerbated by the pandemic.

In a 2021 survey conducted by McKinsey and Company, 58% of respondents say that closing skill gaps in their companies’ workforces has become a higher priority since the beginning of COVID-19. And among those skills, more than half of respondents report a focus on developing leadership, critical-thinking and decision-making, and project-management skills. Compared to previous results from 2019, many of the skills where respondents report the biggest increases in demand belong in 2 categories: social/emotional skills and advanced cognitive skills.

McKinsey’s research also indicates that the trend is predicted to continue, and by 2030, people will work 26% more hours on jobs that require social and emotional skills.

“How you and your team appear to the world — whether in-person or online — is a representation of your business brand,” says Ami Au-Yeung, a workplace strategist and career coach.

“The minute interactions, especially soft skills, between your staff and customers, vendors, or other stakeholders don’t go unnoticed. With increased competition and heightened customer awareness through social media, small businesses can’t afford to have poor behaviors and actions of team members be the sole reflection of the business brand.”

What can you do as a small business owner to get ahead of this shortage?

Identify soft skills that are important for your business

The first step to getting ahead would be to identify what soft skills are important for you. Look for strong, action-oriented words that go beyond cliches like “be a team player” and “have a positive attitude.”

To start, you can leverage public reports that highlight today’s most important interpersonal skills. Monster’s 2022 Global Report reported that when employers were asked to name the top soft skills employees should have, they mentioned teamwork/collaboration, communication and problem solving/critical thinking.

Sites like LinkedIn also publish reports each year that highlight the most sought-after and researched skills. One of these reports, the World Economic Forum’s “The Future of Jobs Report 2020,” shares that some of the most important soft skills to know for 2025 will be:

  • Analytical thinking and innovation
  • Active learning strategies
  • Complex problem solving
  • Leadership and social influence
  • Critical thinking skills and analysis
  • Creativity, originality, and initiative
  • Resilience, stress tolerance, and flexibility
  • Reasoning, problem solving, and ideation

Leveraging these kinds of reports can help you understand the broad landscape of important soft skills. Then you can focus on the ones you want employees to develop in the workplace.

Next steps

Next, look at each of your own top performers and leaders and evaluate which soft skills they possess. What implications can you draw from their performance when it comes to skills that make your business successful?

Finally, look at your company’s roles/job descriptions and evaluate what soft skills are needed to perform those jobs successfully.

“You need to ask yourself, what do you and your business want to be known for?,” Au-Yeung says. “What do you value as a business owner? Let’s say post-purchase customer care is a cornerstone of your business. A soft skill that you may need to train your team on is conversing with difficult clients who may be irate about a product purchase. Your team will need to understand the customer’s perspective, be empathic, be patient, and be open to partnering with the clients.”

Based on all this information, you can start benchmarking important soft skills for your company’s needs and identify where you might have any gaps in your current team.

What’s your biggest 2022 HR challenge that you’d like to resolve

Answer to see the results

Support the development of those soft skills in the workplace

One way to support the development of soft skills is to properly screen for them at the interview stage. For interviews, prepare questions that measure technical abilities and evaluate the personality traits and soft skills you’re looking for. Here are some examples:

  • How do you communicate complex topics to a new customer?
  • Tell me about a time you had to deal with failure.
  • Tell me about a time you resolved an issue involving interpersonal relationships in the workplace.

Make sure interviewers know to look for good communication skills and active listening skills in all candidates. Highlight the importance of these soft skills early in the employee onboarding process as you welcome new candidates into your culture.

Leaders must also model the desired behaviors they want to see in their company.

“Managers need to recognize that their staffs are watching their behaviors for cues and behave accordingly,” says Saul Carliner, a professor at Concordia University. “Managers can’t say one thing, do another, then expect their teams to do as the manager says. Additionally, when managers see something that is ‘off’ in the behavior of their employees, they should immediately address it.”

Carliner says you can detect signs when there is a soft skill gap in your work environment. Common problems include people finding out about important decisions, policies, and guidelines by accident, people working at cross purposes, people avoiding one another, and misunderstandings. Sometimes a gap in communication skills could be remedied with some soft skills training from human resources.

Other ways to help develop soft skills

Another way to support soft skill development is to offer training and coaching, either internally or externally. Training should be focused on helping your employees develop stronger emotional intelligence and self-awareness. You can use sites like re:Work to help you find training and workshops that support the development of soft skills for free!

Another way to support soft skill development is to offer training and coaching, either internally or externally. Training should be focused on helping your employees develop stronger emotional intelligence and self-awareness.

Because soft skills are challenging to teach, hiring managers must consider how to weigh them against the traditional value of technical skills. They may ask themselves: Is it better to hire an IT consultant who has 50% of the technical abilities but 75% of the soft skills? Or vice versa?

Cultivate, measure, and encourage soft skills in the workplace

According to a report by the International Association of Administrative Professionals, OfficeTeam and HR.com, 67% of HR managers said they’d hire a candidate with strong soft skills even if his or her technical abilities were lacking.

There is no one formula for measuring soft skills. In some cases, it can be just as much an art as a science. Know what skills matter for you and your business, and tie that into everything you do, from the top down.

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