After two unpredictable years of the pandemic, the fate of the workplace of the future is still in limbo.
Lost in the back-and-forth among proponents of “work from anywhere” and others who insist on returning to the office is a fundamental truth about the future of work. In my view, collaboration—be it from the home, office, or third place—will reign supreme, and so too will so-called “soft skills.”
This is true even as the digital acceleration since 2020 intensifies as automation, AI, and robotics take hold. As recent McKinsey research makes clear, it means while the need for manual and physical skills will decline, demand for social and higher cognitive skills will grow. These skills will be essential regardless of where or how the future workforce begins and finishes the workday.
Origin story of soft skills
Given their origin, it shouldn’t be a surprise that “soft skills” will remain a linchpin to effective collaboration. In the late-1960s, as the U.S. military shifted to train soldiers to take advantage of machinery, it realized that technical proficiency wasn’t the determinant of success. Instead, success and failure came down to the quality of leadership, leading Paul G. Whitmore to coin the concept of “soft skills” to differentiate between technical and non-technical abilities.
The overarching connection of all the soft skills identified by Whitmore and those who followed boil down to communication. From listening and influencing to showing empathy and reading body language, these human behavioral characteristics are imperative for strong leadership. And it is strong leadership that must be cultivated regardless of the physical work environment in which we find ourselves today and into the future.
Why soft skills matter
Just as technical proficiency wasn’t the determinant for success in the U.S. military, technology today isn’t what makes a workforce, regardless of where it is located, effective or not. Strong “soft skills” (or more simply stated, “people skills”) are critical to empowering leaders and teams to unlock their expertise, experience, understanding, and ability to innovate.
The ability to communicate and have an open dialogue with your team is a keystone for any successful workplace—in-person, remote or hybrid. And being remote cannot be an excuse for letting communication skills atrophy. Just the opposite, in fact.
Cultivating people skills has been challenging, albeit not impossible, over the past two years of primarily remote work. It has been hard, in a remote work setting, for example, to trust that someone is paying attention to what you have to say. The difficulty of achieving even that entry level of trust has made building the deeper connection upon which effective teams thrive even more challenging. The remote work setting has also made all communication feel more transactional and attention has become an even more valuable commodity than ever before.
Through it all, the challenge has been to maintain and even build new communication muscles. Intentionally cultivating active listening skills, for example, has been and continues to be vital to ensure all parties to a conversation feel heard regardless of whether they are in the same physical space.
Soft skills and strong leadership
In 2021, the company I work at led an off-site leadership session. We ran through an exercise to determine what made someone a great leader. Of course, terms like “subject matter expert,” “efficient,” etc. came up. Notably, however, around 80% of the words thrown out to describe great leaders were in the behavioral bucket: “motivating,” “inspiring,” “caring,” “good listener,” and “passionate” made the list.
Attributes like having industry expertise and technical skills are a given and expected in business. Reports expect their leaders to be strong decision-makers and to know their fields; what makes a leader unique is an ability to relay that information and pull out what they need to make those decisions and lead their team: In other words, knowing people.
Championing people skills makes for exceptional leaders and, in turn, exceptional teams. By intentionally practicing, we’re able to flex our communication muscles and be more human online. To ensure critical communication skills aren’t being lost as we navigate different modes of work, leaders must do the following:
- Intentionally structure meetings to facilitate trust. Give time and space for personal interactions on calls. This way, small group meetings and even one-on-one’s can mimic in-office chats. Naturally, the conversation becomes less transactional and more human—leading to openness and trust in the team.
- Work with leadership teams on empathy training. When you’re working remotely, sometimes you don’t realize what’s truly on your colleagues’ plates. Focus on empathy training to ensure people can ask the right questions and work with their teams to find solutions. These skills allow leaders to demonstrate that they care and encourage open dialogue.
- Recognize that in-person time is important for bonding. This might be a point of contention, but finding a flexible way to allow for in-person time is key. Setting up special events or monthly in-person leadership meetings can help fill that social gap. At our company, for example, we have monthly on-site operating review meetings and various employee resource groups where folks with similar interests can organize social events.
According to experts, the event of a full return to the office is unlikely to happen, and the “new normal” is something organizations must learn to live and adapt with. Regardless, workplaces will need to continue to learning how to interact with new people and familiar colleagues, virtually. Figuring out how to work remotely while building and maintaining people skills, such as open communication, active listening, empathy, and trust, is essential for every leader and business’ success.
Avigail Dadone is the chief people officer at Diligent, a SaaS company in the governance, risk management, and compliance field.