Hard times demand soft skills

How lockdown has improved soft skills at work

During the past few months, living and working through the coronavirus crisis, we’ve all learnt a thing or two. For thousands of people across the UK, this has been done through online courses, but for others, much of the learning that’s taken place is harder to define. The way we work has undergone huge changes, forcing us into different routines, new ways of connecting with colleagues, and bringing soft skills to the fore.


What are soft skills?

Hard skills are teachable knowledge and abilities, such as computer coding or video editing, which are often cited in job posts and listed on your CV.

Soft skills, although equally essential in the workplace, are harder to define. They comprise“the qualities, behaviours and attributes needed to succeed in the workplace”. These include interpersonal skills, teamwork, time management and productivity. While these traits are often thought to come naturally to some people—and forever elude others— they can be taught and developed. And experts, such as Natalie Brett, head of London College of Communication, believe it is essential that employers and employees start to do just that.

“Soft skills are in fact increasingly in demand in the workplace: Google cites creativity, leadership potential and communication skills as top prerequisites for both potential and current employees,” she wrote. Brett adds that strong soft skills help employees “to adapt to change more easily, gain a greater understanding of people and the world around them, and ultimately progress further in their chosen career”.

Lockdown, with all of its challenges, has provided the perfect storm to test and develop these skills. We spoke to three professionals in different industries to find out which soft skills they’ve been honing over the past few months.

Adaptability

Adaptability scoops fourth place in a list of the most in-demand soft skills for 2020, according to a recent LinkedIn survey. The only constant in life—and in business—is change. Employees who thrive in a dynamic environment and bounce back quickly in the face of challenges are the ones who can handle anything that comes their way,” stated the report.

For team development lead Neil Kidd, adaptability meant adjusting to new tools. Normally, his office tracks projects with cards and magnets on a board that the team can quickly reference. These processes have all shifted online, with the team adapting to digital trackers and collaborative whiteboards to keep each other up to date. “That’s been really useful, to try and replicate the process.” he said. “It’s not perfect, but it does work pretty well for what we want.”

International arts producer Halime Özdemir found she had to adapt to a new routine when her workload disappeared overnight. “Basically everything that I’ve been working on for the past year I’ve had to shift to 2021,” she said. “It was painful. April was supposed to be a massive month for me.”

Özdemir rose to the challenge. “I timetable myself,” she said. “Monday to Friday, even though I’m not working, I will still wake up at 7AM. I will still have a full day, and brush up on my language skills, read… I’m reading a lot.”

Productivity

For many employees, working from home has been challenging. However, a recent survey found that for over half (58%) of employers, working from home during lockdown has had no significant negative effect on employee productivity. Moreover, 15% found that it had a positive impact on how much they could get done.

For Louise Richards, a senior liaison researcher in the public sector, working from home has given her the freedom to take charge of her productivity. “I’m not necessarily productive 9 til 5,” she said. “My organisation has somewhat flexible hours, as long as I’m around for meetings. It means that I can allow myself a bit of a better work-life balance and to work when I’m energised.”

“I still put in the same hours—I probably put in more sometimes—but I make sure that those hours are when I’m productive.”

Leadership skills

Leadership qualities are made up of a blend of soft skills such as decision-making, integrity, problem-solving and the ability to teach and mentor. These skills are obviously important for bosses and CEOs, but employees can also show leadership, and in doing so, become more self-reliant, productive and influential.

Richards has taken a proactive role in sharing ideas and making sure information reaches the right people. “We’re in a situation where we’re working super hard and we can’t see the connections between our work. It’s difficult to get the full picture,” she said.

Solving this problem has meant sharing her work more widely and making sure that she follows up with relevant colleagues. It’s also made sharing ideas less stressful, she says. “[Online] you throw it out there, and you don’t have to defend it immediately in conversation or present it publicly and get nervous about it,” she said.

Özdemir is used to taking the lead when it comes to organisation, particularly digital communication. “If someone’s going to set up the conference, it’s probably me,” she said. She’s seeing the skills she’s been using for 15 years in a new light after being contacted by a recruiter who was particularly interested in her digital communication experience. “I’ve added it to my CV,” she said. “People really want to see it.”

Communication

Unsurprisingly, digital forms of communication have come to the fore. In a recent report, 81% of companies surveyed said that they have made good use of communication tools such as Slack, Teams and Whatsapp.

Of course, there is also Zoom. While many of us are Zoomed out, Kidd sees some advantages in video meetings. As someone who admits that he can potentially dominate conversations, video calls have helped him rethink the way he communicates with colleagues. “It picks up somebody and it sort of shuts everybody else down a little bit. So you basically have to let everybody have a turn,” he said. “I think I listen more.”

Social communication has been a priority for Richards, who joined an informal games group at work. “[This was] less because I desperately wanted to play games but more because I was kind of new anyway and I didn’t know everyone. It was an opportunity to meet people,” she said.

This, in turn, has helped her connect with colleagues about work matters. “I feel I know people and I can communicate with them a little bit easier having met them socially,” said Richards.

Relationship building

How good are your work relationships? The emotional rollercoaster of Covid-19 and lockdown have created stronger bonds with colleagues for many of us. For both Richards, working in an organisation of thousands, and for Kidd, in a tech start-up with less than 100 employees, relationship-building has provided a way to let off steam and get to know their colleagues better.

Both find games, competitions and social activities helpful. Kidd’s colleagues have virtual coffee breaks and gaming nights. Richards’ company has organised a World Cup of Music. This, she says, has helped her extend her network of work connections and build a wider sense of belonging. It’s also helped build a sense of community at work, which “reminds you that those people still exist and they’ve got lives going on. And there’s a lot more to them than just the person that you have a meeting with.”

Empathy

According to communications expert James Freeze, empathy has become crucial, especially if working from home. “Most employees are juggling much more than usual, attempting to balance unfamiliar obstacles at work with life at home. Leading with empathy fosters a more supportive and collaborative environment, allowing your team to tackle change—and the challenges that come with it—together,” he said.

Kidd finds empathy has a new role. “Before lockdown, I didn’t really think about whether [my colleagues] lived on their own, because it’s literally none of my business. But then you’re, like, well how long is this quarantine thing going to go on for? Do they need somebody else?” he said.

When colleagues were furloughed, “it felt even more important”. Kidd’s team responded by inviting those furloughed to regular virtual meet-ups to keep them connected socially. “It was already a really tough time to be on less pay and you’re going to be questioning why you were chosen,” he said. “We wanted to make sure that they still felt part of the team.”

For those who work alone, such as Özdemir, a sense of empathy has led her to look at wider networks and her role in them. She began lockdown working on a project to offer funding to artists, who have seen their incomes disappear; more recently, she’s been leaning into her role as head of communications for her alma mater’s Alumni of Colour Association.

Özdemir hopes our shared experience will mean empathy becomes commonplace at work. “I just hope that people learn from this,” she said. “I hope that this does lead us into a generation where we’re more collaborative in our thinking, and more supportive in the way we work with one another.”

As for soft skills, not only do employers increasingly want to see them, but during the economic fallout of Covid-19 they will be crucial to succeed in a competitive job market. Isn’t it about time you added them to your CV?

Photo: WTTJ

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Joanna York

Journalist

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