One thing that’s been clear for some time is that some of the shifts that have occurred over the last two years will remain with us indefinitely. One of those shifts is the widespread practice of remote and hybrid work arrangements. This being the case, while soft skills have always been critical, they have now taken on a considerably heightened importance. Our ability to communicate, collaborate, build relationships and solve problems effectively depends on soft skills, but these all occur more naturally in a physical work environment.
Even if managers and employees lack soft skills, physical proximity can make enough of a positive difference that it’s possible to take soft skills for granted. Since we no longer have that luxury, organizations and HR teams must take more deliberate and proactive measures to increase soft skills among their workforces.
Why have soft skills doubled in importance? It’s mainly because of the “distance gap,” which makes us more susceptible to under-communication, miscommunication, misunderstandings, and tensions that, if unaddressed, can build up over time and fester. Eventually, this can lead to a growing sense of isolation for employees, and as a result, morale suffers, productivity drops, and engagement goes down. So you have, on the one hand, fewer natural opportunities for relationship-building and, on the other hand, more misunderstandings and miscommunications that build up. Unfortunately, in my experience consulting for organizations, I have seen firsthand that many have not yet grasped the importance and urgency of soft skill training and development.
Emotional Intelligence (EQ)
Since there is a wide range of soft skills, they cannot all be emphasized equally over the short term. But a good place to start would be with emotional intelligence (EQ). There is a large body of research and evidence around the importance of EQ, which is generally defined as the ability to be aware of and manage one’s own emotions and to be sensitive to and help manage others’ emotions. We’ve all experienced how heightened emotions can diminish our productivity and rational problem-solving processes. Self-awareness and self-regulation of emotions, building empathy, finding ways as individuals and teams to maintain a high level of motivation, relationship building, and just general social skills—could be considered the primary pillars of EQ that would need to be fortified. There is also just more of an overall need for us to be doubly courteous, doubly kind, and doubly sensitive to people we are working with precisely because of the aforementioned diminished ability to pick up on the social cues and signals that would be more readily perceived in a physical work environment. Being extra courteous, kind, and sensitive helps to alleviate the problems that can arise from missing those cues, which will inevitably happen sometimes in remote environments.
Another crucial soft skill right now would be something that I call next-level communication. Next-level communication is intentionally over-communicating to compensate for the shortcomings of remote and digital communication. That means more emails, more messages, to the point where it may feel too much. This would need to be done thoughtfully and not heedlessly, but in our current times, it’s better to err on the side of too much communication than not enough. Emotional intelligence makes a natural companion skill to next-level communication since having EQ can help people detect, for instance, subtle cues indicating that something may have been misinterpreted or misconstrued. The role of EQ is to sense these occurrences, and the part of next-level communication is to promptly check in with the other party and clear up the misunderstanding, thereby preventing those misunderstandings from building up and festering.
Also complimentary to next-level communication and EQ is the soft skill of active listening, but this is more difficult in a remote environment because there can be more distractions and barriers when working from home. Knowing how to manage, minimize, or eliminate distractions is, therefore, another extremely useful skill to have. Active listening in a remote environment requires paying attention to every available cue, such as tone of voice and facial expressions, to understand what others think and feel since there are less readily available cues than in in-person environments. For this reason, it may be a good idea not to filter out any of these potential cues, such as by turning off your cameras during Zoom meetings so that visual cues can be sent and received.
One more soft skill I would emphasize is conflict resolution, in which all the soft skills already covered come together to recognize and proactively address conflict. If emotional intelligence, active listening, and next-level communication are practiced, then the potential for conflict is substantially reduced. Still, human communication being the complex affair that it is, there is always a risk, especially when communication is digital and asynchronous.
Finally, something that should be acknowledged isn’t so much a soft skill per se as a way to facilitate their practice. Even though soft skills are more critical than ever, especially those I’ve discussed here, practicing them consistently is more complex than ever. This is because of the high stress, fatigue, and burnout levels that have been enduring themes over the last two years. This highlights the need for more awareness of mental health and for management to give people the time, space, and latitude they need to rest and recover so that they have the bandwidth to continue applying those crucial soft skills.
As mentioned, I still see many organizations that have not made the prioritization of soft skills as deliberate and explicit a process as it should be. While it may seem like a tall order to devote time, people, and resources to such a project, not doing so could end up being far costlier. The organizations that realize this and adopt proactive, strategic measures to address the problem will be the ones to attract and keep talent at a time when many are leaving their jobs precisely due, in part, to this very problem.