What Covid-19 Taught Us About The Importance of Workplace ‘Soft Skills’

Dec 22

By Jason Richmond, Founder, Ideal Outcomes, Inc.

The importance of “soft skills” in the workplace has become evident since the Covid-19 pandemic ravaged the business world.

While employees need training on the specific skills required to do their jobs, competencies, like communication, empathy, adaptability, collaboration, and problem-solving have proven themselves vital during the rapid shift to remote work arrangements. Prioritize these skills among your employees, and your company will be much better equipped the next time the business world faces a large-scale crisis.

In a study that correlated soft skills with performance, Global HR consulting firm DDI found that empathy was the number one interaction skill driving overall performance, decision-making, coaching, engaging, planning, and organizing. Unfortunately, empathy was one of the lowest scoring skills among the frontline leaders they assessed.

The Society for Human Resources (SHRM) took a slightly different approach by looking at the top skills missing in job applicants. Problem-solving, the ability to deal with complexity and ambiguity, and communication were all in short supply.

One of the reasons organizations hesitate to invest in the development of soft skills is that, prior to the pandemic, these programs have not demonstrated much impact, primarily because organizations do not define upfront why they are targeting such development or the goals they want to achieve. Even if a company defines the purpose of soft skills development, the purpose is not typically aligned with business objectives. The need for soft skills in the workplace – and the ability to measure the impact of these skills – is hugely important for a post-pandemic workplace. The following strategies will help you develop valuable soft skills among your workforce, thereby strengthening your company and equipping it for the long run.

Determine the Right Development Team

Human resources cannot tackle this project alone. Build a team of ten to twelve people who have strong soft skills themselves, and who represent various operational functions: field employees, frontline employees, and middle managers, along with leaders, who will champion the cause.

Begin with a Focus on Business Needs

What’s going on in your business? What are your top two or three business strategies? What aspects of your business have priority? For example, do you want to improve employee engagement and talent retention? Do you need to increase revenue from existing customers? When you begin with focusing on business needs, you avoid falling into the trap of implementing “programs du jour.”

More importantly, you lay the foundation for measuring the impact of your initiatives on business performance. Think carefully about how a soft skills strategy can benefit your existing business needs, and develop a plan for measuring the impact of your new strategy on these needs.

Consider Your Culture

Consider your culture, including your purpose and values. How will your development programs support, align with, and reinforce your corporate culture in a consistent manner? If teamwork is a core value, for instance, reinforce this value by creating cohorts of participants, who coach each other on implementing the concepts taught in their soft skills training.

Determine What Is Important

Determine the soft skills that will be the most helpful in achieving your business strategies, while simultaneously ensuring that these skills align with your culture and values. For example, if customer satisfaction scores are low, look at the skill sets demonstrated by your customer interaction personnel. Are they friendly? Are they good listeners? How well do they manage their time and follow-up? What are the typical service complaints? Are they product-related or people-related?

If your goal is to increase innovation, what behaviors are lacking that drive innovation? Are talented employees micromanaged, for example? Are managers good at supporting risk-taking or are mistakes harshly criticized? This is a simple yet compelling way to perform a business-focused needs analysis and tie your interventions to business impact. When most employees are working from home, the importance of these skills is amplified. Communication skills are more vital than ever during online conferencing, in email, and in chat tools.

Consider Using Assessment Tools

Assessment tools that can help include the MBTI (Myers Briggs), which is useful for determining personality styles and whether you have a balanced workforce, and the Personal Strengths Profile (PSP), which gives insight into personality, communication, and problem-solving styles.

Tools like these can help you analyze gaps more specifically, so you can develop programs to address them. 360-degree assessments can offer insight into your management and leadership soft skills, as do data from employee and engagement surveys. Look for patterns of gaps and concentrate on your most important issues. At Ideal Outcomes, we coach clients on how to use these tools effectively because there are pitfalls when 360 tools are poorly executed, but when they are done well, the value of the information gained is significant.

Plan Your Curriculum and Delivery Methods

Once you have a solid understanding of your business needs, the soft skills required to drive them, and the gaps in your organization, you are ready to design your program strategy. Take into consideration that such skills require practice and feedback. With many employees working remotely, self-paced online programs or live online coaching are necessary and effective approaches (when done right). Consider cohort development as well, where you create groups of peers, who coach and give ongoing feedback to each other following meetings, team discussions, or agile scrum sessions. With the right technology, these can be handled online.

Measure Progress and Results

Develop a simple, visual scorecard to track your progress quarterly. Include data points, like customer satisfaction scores, feedback from program participants, shifts in 360 scores, data from spot employee surveys, and turnover. Base your tracking on the goals you established at the beginning of the process. Report on results regularly to your leaders.

Customize

Off-the-shelf programs rarely resonate with participants. Learners need to see the connection between content, your culture, your business, and your work environment. If your organization does not have learning and development capacity in-house, partner with a vendor, who is adept at content and delivery customization.

Good vendors will invest time in getting to know your work environment and culture and will incorporate your language into the content. They will ensure your goals and priorities are emphasized, and the people delivering the programs will speak your company’s language. One thing we have learned is that people tend to be literal and quickly dismiss training content that does not align with the work world they know. Simple things, such as how you refer to employees (team members, or associates) or customers (clients) impact delivery credibility with your participants.  

Continue to Enhance Your Digital Learning Capabilities

Digital solutions are here to stay. Companies have realized that online training not only gets results (if done well), but is also cost-effective.

The learning landscape has changed in ways that will foster a new way of thinking about learning, development, and collaboration. The adoption of fully digitized approaches to recreate the best of in-person learning through live video and social sharing is an essential enterprise strategy. This transformation makes it possible to scale learning efforts in a more cost-effective way and permits greater personalization for learners—and, in turn, greater effectiveness.

Companies around the world have had to vault ahead in adopting and applying digital technology. The future will be owned by those organizations that can be nimbler and more adaptable to any crisis.

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for workplace soft skills in a meaningful way. Employers, employees, customers, and clients all benefit from an increased focus on soft skills. If you haven’t already developed and implemented a soft skills strategy within your own company, the time to do so is now.