Still working from home? You may need to brush up on your soft skills, experts say

In a post-pandemic workplace, many employees may need to double-down on their “soft skills” to remain effective, experts say.

“(The pandemic) changed how we applied and used the soft skills,” says Renée Fullerton, chief operating officer at iHR Advisory Services. “It changed how teams collaborated, how conflict was handled, and how people communicated their thoughts and ideas.”

While some employees appreciate the efficiency of virtual communication, Fullerton says others struggle to communicate without the use of body language and eye contact and without being able to “feel the energy in the room.”

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Recent graduates and new workers attempting to network for the first time can also struggle, Fullerton says.

In fact, she argues, the lack of in-person interaction caused by the pandemic has heightened the need for employees to keep up with a changing workplace.

“Many organizations had started prioritizing things like teamwork, communication, collaborative problem-solving and conflict resolution prior to the pandemic,” Fullerton says. “There was already a growing emphasis being placed on upskilling, reskilling and developing technical and soft skills.”

Once the pandemic hit, “the need to continuously grow and learn to succeed in your role or advance your career did not diminish, but the in-person interaction did,” she adds.

While many employees were too busy or overwhelmed during the pandemic to concentrate on learning new skills, Fullerton argues it was the “perfect time” for people to focus on online learning. The switch to email, instant messaging and video calls to communicate made these skills more important than ever.

 Add the rapid acceleration of the digital evolution and Fullerton says employees of all experience levels and in all industries have their work cut out for them.

“People recognize it for what it is and know that if they want to succeed or advance their career, they need to learn and they need to do it fast,” says Fullerton.

Emotional intelligence, or EQ (emotional quotient), is becoming “just as important, if not more, than your IQ” in a work context, agrees Priya Bhaloo, chief operating officer at TAG HR.

“How you conduct yourself through your interactions with your teammates is crucial to your effectiveness and your advancement may hinge on your ability to navigate conflict,” Bhaloo says.

While employees used to acquire these skills “through osmosis” when workplaces were in-person, many people continue to work remotely. 

“It’s crucial to actively look for ways to improve your soft and technical skills,” she adds.

According to a study from Athabasca University released earlier this month, more than three-quarters of respondents want to re-skill just to keep up with their job’s changing needs. Of those, 70 per cent listed digital skills as the top priority.

But 74 per cent said they want to improve their interpersonal and soft skills, such as communication style, conflict resolution capabilities, relatability and team-building.

Alex Clark, president of Athabasca University, said in a statement that the findings suggest Canadian workers are feeling pressure to stay relevant in an increasingly digital world but are “also feeling the effects of pandemic isolation and feel a need for an interpersonal skills ‘reset.’” 

“The data from this study is telling us that Canadians almost can’t keep up with the dizzying pace of technological growth in the workplace, yet our need to improve skills that support better human connections has never been greater,” says Clark. “After experiencing such acute isolation due to COVID-19, it’s almost like we need some post-pandemic interpersonal re-skilling, hence our deep thirst to take more courses to improve our leadership-focused soft skills.”

According to the study, more than half of Canadian workers want to learn new skills but without giving up too much of their personal time. 

The impact of the pandemic on people’s views of work and life “cannot be discounted or underestimated,” Fullerton says. People’s priorities shifted and, with them, their outlook on work-life balance.

“We were all reminded of just how short life can be,” Fullerton says. “So, not surprisingly, people became protective of their time and are now trying to balance their desire for upskilling with their desire to protect their time.”

Nearly two-thirds of workers who responded to the study acknowledged having experienced some prior workplace exhaustion, saying they are now guarding the pace of their work to make sure they don’t burn out like they did before. 

Clark noted that the study’s findings highlight a need to find a balance between having aspirational learning and growth goals and finding the time to realize those goals.

Some employees believe employers should be allowing time and paying for their development and learning.  

“After all, their new and/or improved skills will benefit the employer, right?” says Fullerton, adding it should be a shared responsibility.  

“Employers should be investing in their business and that includes ensuring that their employees have the required skills to do the work,” she says. “Employees, however, also need to invest in themselves, for they, too, will benefit and the benefits they reap will continue throughout their entire career.”

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