These hard and challenging Covid pandemic times have made us realise the increasing importance of soft skills in various aspects of our lives.
So, what exactly does one mean by soft skills?
Simply put, while hard skills refer to the ability to do a specific task in a certain domain area, soft skills are more about the way the task is carried out—how one adapts, collaborates, solves problems, and takes decisions while applying rational thinking. Soft skills focus on how people are as humans, rather than what they know - they involve the character traits that determine how one interacts with others and are an integral part of an individual's personality.
Soft skills are now increasingly in demand in the workplace - they are popularly referred to as the “qualities, behaviors and attributes needed to succeed in the workplace”. Companies are giving equal if not more importance to the soft skills while hiring and training. Companies such as Google cite creativity, leadership potential and communication skills as top prerequisites for both prospective and current employees. In fact, LinkedIn’s 2020 list of the most in-demand hard and soft skills also points to the fact that while hard skills are important, it is the soft skills (creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability and emotional intelligence) you possess which will give you the edge and stand you apart.
Soft skills are believed to help individuals adapt to change more easily, gain a greater understanding of people and the world around them, and ultimately progress further in their chosen career. Success at the workplace often centres on how well a team works together. Technical skills alone won’t help a team crack deals, surpass targets and move towards the firm’s ultimate goal if it’s inundated by conflicts, poor communication, ineffective leadership, stress and lack of flexibility, among other things.
The Covid pandemic has necessitated the entire world to dramatically change its work practices overnight from fixed hours in an office environment to Work from Home (WFH) or remote set-ups and this is being termed as the ‘new normal’. Any lingering reservations about the importance and utility of soft skills have faded away. These trying times have challenged employees to demonstrate soft skills like flexibility, resilience, empathy and agility while completely refurbishing their communication and teamwork skills and other typical work habits.
Effective communication and empathy are the most powerful tools when it comes to working remotely. Misunderstandings tend to crop up which end up stifling the entire work process. It is a herculean task to ensure timely follow-ups, keep everyone on the same page and make sure information reaches the right people at the right time, all while staying sensitive that while people may be working from home, they at times do have over-riding personal priorities which need to be factored-in. Effective empathetic communication and persuasion skills make a world of difference. These cost nothing extra but help win hearts and commitment even when separated by hundreds of miles of physical distance. Communication through video meetings during the ‘new normal’ has made several re-think the way they communicated with their colleagues. From being known as people who potentially dominated conversations to actually starting to give everyone a turn, and listening more actively, perspectives and work cultures have seen some major modifications.
Coming to adaptability, it is one trait that has sieved a large chunk of the workforce during the pandemic. Being flexible during these times is a critical tool that is increasingly being leveraged. The only constant in life—and in business today, is change. Employees who thrive in a dynamic environment and are able to bounce back quickly in the face of challenges are evidently the ones who would be in demand now.
Whether it’s a company or an educational institution, whether it is shifting to virtual meetings or reimagining collaboration - it all comes down to how adaptable we are. Working with a team that has an open mindset, is willing to step up and take on additional challenges and adjust to new deadlines will lead to better results in the long run than working with those who are rigid and unwilling to bend, as priorities shift.
That’s the beauty of a small business actually; you can change relatively quickly if the people you work with can adapt relatively quickly. It was very interesting to recently hear an interview on television with a baker who ran a patisserie in India. Realizing that it would be months before people are comfortable dining out or ordering in, they did the math and figured that the business would not be able to survive it. However, this was not the end - the lady along with her employees started making and selling Ready-to-Bake Cake Mixes which have now become top-sellers at supermarkets.
Adaptability also has to do with adopting new tools - be it the virtual meeting apps or digital trackers and collaborative whiteboards to help keep everyone up to date instead of the traditional cards and magnets that were used on the common board for everyone’s reference.
The emotional rollercoaster that came with Covid-19 and the lockdown has created stronger bonds with colleagues for many of us as well. Virtual coffee breaks, gaming and Netflix nights have helped let off steam, get to know our colleagues better and build a sense of community at work.
The last of the top 5 in-demand soft skills is emotional intelligence - It’s the ability to understand, use, and manage our own emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathize, overcome challenges and defuse conflict.
For any organization, leading with empathy nurtures a more supportive and stimulating environment, allowing the entire team to tackle change and the challenges that come with it. In fact, empathy isn’t just restricted to the workplace. These are extremely trying times for everyone and it is essential to understand that it is okay to have good and bad days, it is okay to not be productive all the time, it is okay to take time to adjust to everything happening in the world. Everyone deals with stress differently and it is essential to be empathetic towards people. The challenges and struggles for some are even more severe. The daily wage earners and the lower income segment have faced extremely hard times, and while we deal with our own hurdles, it is of extreme importance to treat others around us and in the world with compassion, empathy and kindness, both online and offline, be grateful and seek happiness in giving.
The talk is about the people - the front-line health workers, sanitation workers, service providers, logistics providers – how they have risen to the occasion to care for people and serve society at large, at times even putting their own lives at risk. With some businesses like hospitality, travel and tourism seeing a long road to recovery, large number of employers across age groups have faced retrenchment. Tiding over this rough phase in life by counting one’s blessings and strengths to chart out a new course in life has seen millions move on in life. Further, sitting at home, more and more people across age groups are realizing the value of slowing down, rethinking life choices and adopting newer, healthier and more productive habits. This helps build the overall value add of soft skills in one’s day to day life.
The pandemic has clearly depicted how soft skills have helped businesses survive these times as well as how this is an opportunity to work on these skills for not just professional but also personal growth and development. Soft skills are the clincher - from adaptability to communication skills, crisis and stress management to rational and critical thinking, telephonic and video conferencing etiquette to handling diversity and non-verbal and inter-cultural fluency. It is essential to be mindful of one’s body language, be open to constructive criticism and continue to apply creativity and critical thinking for organisational and individual enhancement. These are the skills that will ultimately hold our virtual workplaces and lives together as we collectively push through these tough times.