Within the space of a year, the job market has completely changed. COVID-19 has migrated the entire workforce and student population online, while the economic fallout from isolation and restriction laws has had a detrimental impact on most industries, while almost completely wiping out others. Suddenly, the technological knowledge and experience that made a pilot a great asset to the airline they were working for, cannot save them from international travel bans. With so many Australians facing uncertainty within the industries they’ve forged their careers in, many are thinking of the future and what they can do now to safeguard their employability. While HR professionals have listed the key steps to help protect your career, one particular trend has consecutively been positioned at the top; soft skills. It seems hard times demand soft skills.
What Are Soft Skills?
While hard skills refer to the specific knowledge and capabilities required to perform a particular task and are often cited in job posts and resumes (for example, coding and data engineering), soft skills are harder to quantify and measure. They are defined as the qualities, behaviours and attributes needed to succeed in the workplace and include traits like interpersonal skills, teamwork, time management and productivity. Ironically, in an era of automation and Artificial Intelligence (AI), being ‘tech savvy’ comes second to possessing soft skills. In fact, in their 2019 Global Talent Trends report, Linkedin found that 91% of talent professionals believe soft skills are vital to the future of work. Furthermore, 92% of companies surveyed, ranked soft skills to be more important than technical skills while 89% believed ‘bad hires’ to be the result of poor soft skills.
Why is such an emphasis being placed on soft skills? One belief is that while technology innovation (like AI) is gradually replacing tasks that humans once did, these advancements can’t replace or mimic soft skills. Companies cannot replicate traits like creativity, empathy or adaptability with technology and consequently will always need people to apply these attributes within their decision making.
Another factor that’s become more important since the start of the pandemic, is that soft skills are transferable. While hard skills relate specifically to one job or industry, skills like collaboration or emotional intelligence are considered core competencies and are required in all jobs- available today and tomorrow. Possessing and being able to effectively demonstrate these soft skills, has now become an incredible advantage for any job-seeker, as COVID-19 has temporarily limited the growth of a number of industries, leaving many professionals forced to look for jobs outside their chosen vocation. Career expert and psychologist Suzie Plush argues, “As much as it’s great to be on top of technology, you really need those human-based skills; emotional intelligence, adaptability, creativity - to have more opportunities in the future.”
The Top Soft Skills For 2020
Due to their intangible nature, soft skills can be difficult to define and categorise. However, research has indicated the key soft skills in 2020 as:
Empathy is the ability to communicate (send and receive messages) and lead by understanding other’s thoughts, views and feelings. It is the key touchstone in being able to build trust and meaningful relationships with other people. Because companies are only as good as their people, the impact of recognising and understanding your stakeholders - who they are and what they are feeling- goes a long way in establishing trust and loyalty. People want to feel connected and like they ‘belong’ at work, and that relies on treating each other with empathy. Empathy has become a valued trait within Design & Build, as building trust within our team, with our clients and with our candidates is the blueprint for growth and development as a company; and this trust can’t be formed without first demonstrating empathy to one another.
There’s also a great business case for empathy- a study from Harvard Business Review found that empathetic companies outperform their more ‘bottom-line driven’ counterparts by 20%, while a Neilson analysis was able to draw a direct link between empathy and new product innovation success. When analysing the 61,000 stock keeping units that represented 12,000 new product launches, Nielson found that 3 in 4 of those launches failed in a year, but those that succeeded did so by effectively being able to ‘walk in the shoes of the consumer and uncover key demand-driven insights’. These stats demonstrate that an empathetic workplace equals an engaged workforce, and that translates to business success.
Creativity is defined as the use of imagination and original ideas to create something, either tangible like a new dress or intangible like a new scientific theory. For the last five years, creativity has been predicted as the most sought-after skill for future jobs, according to research by the UK Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre (PEC). Linkedin also listed creativity as the number one in-demand soft skill for the year, arguing that organisations need people who can approach problems and tasks across all business roles with out-of-the-box thinking, in order to help identify new ways for those organisations to grow.
When the Adobe State of Create report was conducted throughout Europe, the US and Japan in 2016, it found that 73% of respondents found investing in creativity a key contributor to greater financial success, while 78% of respondents believed it made for a better customer experience and 79% of respondents believed it allowed their business to remain competitive within the market. This makes sense when you think of some the most successful global companies to date; Google, Apple, Netflix, Amazon. All of these companies have placed a significant emphasis on innovation and creativity within their business model and are always striving to bring something new and different to the market. Certainly, as the world braces itself for an impending recession, the ability to create and present new ideas has become paramount. As companies forge forward, the ability to look at the changing market from a different angle and come up with ‘creative’ solutions will be essential for future growth.
Defined as the quality of being able to adjust to new conditions, adaptability has been listed as one of the top in-demand soft skills for the second year in a row by Linkedin- although it has certainly held more gravitas coming into the second half of 2020. Global pandemics aside, we know that the only constant in life and in business is change. To remain competitive as a business, you need to be able to embrace change and a sure-fire way to do this, is through ensuring your people can adapt. The Linkedin 2019 Global Trends report found that employees who thrive in a dynamic environment and bounce back quickly in the face of challenges, were able to perform better in their roles. A separate study by Frontiers In Psychology, also found that when asking managers on why they had granted particular employees promotions over the course of five years, 45% of respondents listed ‘adaptability’ and being able to pivot their behaviours, as a key reason.
In 2020, we’ve all had to embrace adaptability in one way or another; a team development lead Neil Kidd had to learn to embrace new digital tools, when working from home forced him to change the way he tracked the progress of his projects. Normally, he’d use cards and magnets on a board which his team could easily reference at once, but now these processes have shifted online and he’s adapted to using digital trackers and creative whiteboards to keep everyone up to date. Similarly, international arts producer Halime Özdemir had to change her work schedule completely when her entire workload either got postponed for at least 6 months or disappeared overnight. Adapting to a new routine has been difficult, but now Halime is using this time to upskill and future-plan for how projects can operate in 2021.
What these stories and the pandemic itself has highlighted, is that being adaptable and resilient to change is an essential component of moving forward, and thus highly valued for businesses trying to navigate themselves towards a post-pandemic recovery.
Finally, the newest addition to the most in-demand soft skills for 2020 list according to Linkedin is Emotional Intelligence (EQ), and it is arguably the ‘godfather’ of soft skills, encompassing many of the traits listed above. EQ refers to your ability to notice your own emotions, and the emotions of others, and using them to manage and guide your thinking and behaviour. Professionals can rely on their EQ to deal with the variety of personalities and challenging situations they encounter at work and research has indicated that when employees take emotions into account, they make better decisions, communicate more diplomatically and resolve issues faster, regardless of who or what comes their way. For example, a study at PepsiCo found that company units headed by managers with well-developed EQ skills out-performed in their yearly revenue targets by 15-20%. Meanwhile a study conducted by Norwich University found that when comparing managers considered ‘outstanding’ by their cohort with those considered ‘average’, 90% of the difference was accounted for by EQ.
Accenture’s HR lead for Australia and New Zealand, Randy Wandermacher recalls how EQ is becoming more prevalent in an industry notorious for focusing on hard skills; engineering. “Employers in engineering are increasingly favouring graduates who don’t “reduce the world to ones and zeros. In the digital and robotics age we still require STEM graduates. But what we also want in graduates is the ability to read others’ emotion.”
Given that so many have been through so much in the past few months, having emotional intelligence is worth its weight in gold – not just for managers, but staff at all levels. This belief has been corroborated by the online course ‘Developing Your Emotional Intelligence’ which during lockdown became one of Linkedin’s top 20 most popular online courses for the year.
How to Utilise Your Soft Skills
There’s a common misconception that soft skills are inherent and come naturally to people- and that if you don’t have the ability to easily emphasise with others, you can’t learn how. While it is true that interpersonal skills come naturally to some and elude others, they can be taught and developed. Natalie Brett, head of London College of Communication, suggests first looking internally if wishing to improve certain soft skills. Approach your manager, or your HR team to see if they have any resources available (seminars, instructional videos etc) that could help. Alternately, there are multiple online courses now available, that address how employees can identify and enhance different soft skills.
Because soft skills play such an integral role in Design & Build’s business model, we have focused on developing our own learning and development model, where each consultant’s potential is addressed and evaluated. The aim first and foremost, is for each consultant to be able to identify any gaps in their skillset- skills that they feel are integral for their role that they'd like to develop further or aren't confident that they've harnessed yet. Once identifying the gaps in your knowledge, developing your skillset becomes ten times easier because you can focus your efforts. If you feel confident in your ability to empathise with your clients but struggle to embrace changes to your routine, you then know to focus on strategies and methods that can improve adaptability.
Once you've identified the areas you want to develop, the next issue becomes training. Research has proven that each person has a preferred learning style, whether that be visual, auditory, kinesthetic or reading/writing, so to ensure we can efficiently train our consultants and accommodate all learning styles Design & Build incorporate a blended learning approach. This consists of:
For those actively seeking new roles, or those looking for greater job security in an uncertain time, it may be worthwhile to shift focus to the soft skills companies look for in addition to your specific job capabilities. As proven by the unforeseen circumstances of COVID-19, we can’t always predict the industries or ‘hard skills’ that will shift or grow, but we can learn how to enhance and develop our transferrable 'human' skills, which will always play a role in securing future employability.