‘Soft’ skills are more than just CV fluff

Are interpersonal, non-technical skills more important than ever in the increasingly complex, hybrid working world?

In 2015, McDonalds attempted to put a value on soft skills to the UK economy – a figure that came in at a whopping £88bn. Today, against a backdrop of skills gaps and evermore complex working environments, that figure may be considerably more. A 2021 government skills gap report found that after IT skills, the top five skills UK businesses were most in need of were all soft skills.

These soft skills are generally defined as non-technical, transferable and interpersonal skills, such as communication, adaptability and critical thinking. While they are often dismissed as something applicants use to pad out their CVs, these vital qualities need nurturing and shouldn’t be taken for granted. Not all jobs will require advanced technical skills, but pretty much every job requires a degree of organisation and the ability to collaborate and communicate well.

It’s this acknowledgement of their value that has led soft skills to go through somewhat of a rebrand in recent years. Udemy Business’s 2022 Workplace Learning Trends Report argued that it was no longer appropriate to call them ‘soft’ skills, as this implied “they represent a less important set of skills in the workplace”. In reality, the report explained, “these skills aren’t just nice to have. They’re essential for changing the workplace.” And so, soft skills became ‘power skills’. 

Similarly, a 2021 report by America Succeeds popularised the term ‘durable skills’ to describe a combination of character skills (such as being a team player) and application of knowledge (such as creativity). It found that 70% of the most requested skills in US job postings would fall under this category. 

Soft skills are becoming increasingly important across all sectors, but particularly in finance, accounting and technology

“Soft skills are becoming increasingly important across all sectors, but particularly in finance, accounting and technology,” says Matt Weston, senior managing director for the UK, Ireland, UAE and Benelux at recruitment agency Robert Half. “Many businesses are moving away from siloed ways of working, and therefore those in highly technical roles are now expected to be able to clearly explain and communicate complex matters to other teams and senior leaders, who may not have a good understanding of the work they do on a day-to-day basis.”

As organisations pivot rapidly to keep up with digital change, navigate uncertainty and break down silos, they’ll need flexibility and an ability to learn fast. Weston explains: “Skills like adaptability and flexibility remain important, particularly as many employers are adjusting their strategies to recover from any setbacks suffered as a result of the pandemic, and to take advantage of the buoyant economy. Many employers are also seeking workers with planning and organisational skills who can bring their vision for the company to life in a timely, effective and productive way.”

But perhaps even more crucial now are those skills that determine how people relate to each other. The hybrid, agile working world is complex, diverse and accommodating. Your staff will have to navigate relationships both on and offline, on different schedules and across teams. They’ll need to work just as smoothly with the remote employee who’s a bit abrupt over Slack as they will with the close colleague they sit next to every day. 

McKinsey’s 2021 global skills survey found that respondents saying their companies were addressing interpersonal skills and empathy skills had nearly doubled in a year. And Raconteur’s own recent audience polling saw communication and collaboration come out on top as the most important soft skills for hybrid working, with empathy and understanding and adaptability and flexibility also seen as important. Efficiency and time management lagged firmly behind, suggesting that ensuring a harmonious and happy team is perhaps more of a priority now than simply building a productive one.

Weston explains the vitality of having the right interpersonal skills to navigate the new world of work: “Emotional intelligence is highly valued by employers as businesses work to become more inclusive and instil a sense of belonging in employees. Interpersonal skills are crucial for managers and senior leaders to be able to effectively manage their teams and identify tensions that could impact retention. While these communication skills have always been important, they have become more desirable in a world of hybrid teams, where it can be harder to pick up on certain behaviours or signs of burnout that would need to be addressed.”

Claire McCartney, senior policy adviser for resourcing and inclusion at the CIPD agrees that it’s vital for management to expand and develop their soft skill set. She explains: “Effective management will be key to the success of hybrid working for many organisations. Managers should be supported to develop a range of skills, particularly with regards to communication and time management for example, as this will help them to best support their teams to successfully navigate hybrid working.”

McCartney continues: “It’s also important for organisations to provide specific training for managers on how to manage hybrid teams effectively and support hybrid workers, including performance management, wellbeing, inclusion and relationship building.”

Emotional intelligence is highly valued by employers as businesses work to become more inclusive and instil a sense of belonging in employees

Of course, developing skills is also of great benefit to the employee, and in the current talent crisis, organisations must be proactive in providing opportunities to learn. Recent research from Robert Half revealed that a quarter of employees who are likely to look for a new role in 2022 say that better opportunities for career development and training is one of the main push factors behind their decision. 

“Employers that focus on building skills – whether technical or soft skills – will be able to reap the rewards when those new skills are put into practice within their organisations, and it can also boost staff satisfaction and improve retention,” says Weston. “In today’s tight market where candidates will often have more than one job offer on the table, additional commitments, like training, can be an important differentiator, as it says a lot about how a company supports its staff.” 

So, don’t be deceived by a name. Soft skills have hard business benefits and, especially in the current climate, should have a seat at the table alongside technical skills in your hiring and training strategies.