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Rebuilding soft skills in hybrid work environments

Nikolas Kairinos, Chief Executive Officer and Founder - Soffos, Inc.

The COVID-19 pandemic has set many workplace transformations in motion. As a result, a new trend has emerged, which has seen professionals quitting their roles in record numbers. Across the UK in particular, job vacancies rocketed to all-time highs in July, and with available posts surpassing one million for the first time, businesses will inevitably be asking –‘what gives?’.

One theory proposes that employees have had increased time for reflection throughout this period. Indeed, time spent in isolation during the pandemic has allowed many individuals to re-assess their career trajectories and ponder on whether their current role fits their needs, prompting some to re-consider their next move. After sampling a taste of flexible working arrangements, segments of the workforce may be seeking a position that allows this permanently, while others may be looking for better opportunities for progression and development.

Businesses must act fast. If they don’t, they risk losing out on talented employees who would otherwise remain loyal to their organization. While this will be no simple task, there are steps that business leaders can take to boost retention and keep workers satisfied. Here are some suggestions…

Don’t overlook soft skills
While the shift to remote and hybrid working practices has been a very exciting development in the working world, the truth is that some business priorities have been cast aside along the way. As organizations focused on hard skills to ease the transition into new ways of working, crucial soft skills such as leadership and communication may have been neglected, which some workers may perceive as a career-progression obstacle.

A prime example of this is the difficulty of internal communication that many businesses have faced throughout the pandemic. Earlier this year, research from Soffos found that over a third of companies have experienced communication breakdowns when working remotely, resulting in wasted time and resources, as staff members became conditioned to working in isolation. An unfortunate consequence of this shift has also been that many workers have failed to interact personally with their colleagues often enough, resulting in crossed wires and confusion. Clearly, it is high time for training managers to work on the development of communication and other soft skills to improve this situation.

Collaboration and active listening are further examples of soft skills that need to be actively developed as professionals settle into hybrid working arrangements. Indeed, a digital-first environment requires a whole new understanding of how team members can work together effectively and drive valuable discussions.

It’s important to admit, that even at the best of times, many businesses will have difficulties developing such traits in workers. While soft skills are often plain to see and observe, they are nonetheless hard to quantify, and it can be tough to measure progress – particularly as staff continue to work apart.

Cater to individual training requirements
But that’s not to say that it can’t be done. To gain more insight into the areas in which staff require training, it would be wise to conduct a thorough skills audit across the organization on an individual basis. This can take the form of questionnaires or Zoom meetings, depending on the size of the organization, but in any case, I have no doubt that training managers would benefit greatly by harnessing the power of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Naturally, every employee will bring a different set of strengths and weaknesses to their own role – consequently, they will require personalized training to meet their needs. While some individuals may be seasoned leaders, bringing oodles of confidence to their role, they may struggle with the parts that require active listening. Meanwhile, more junior employees may need to work on their ability to delegate, deliver presentations, and manage lively meetings, for example.

Without adequate technology in place, this is a gargantuan task for any learning and development (L&D) professional to organize. That’s why AI-powered technologies, capable of capturing sophisticated data analytics on each individual team member, will be a great help. Such analytics can show the courses that individuals are engaging with most, along with any gaps in their skillsets. From here, training managers can work on an appropriate course of action, with technology by their side.

While it might sound counter-intuitive, next-gen learning management systems can improve ‘human’ interpersonal skills in more direct ways, too. For example, Conversational AI (CAI) platforms can ask open-ended questions to elicit rich responses from users. By engaging in continuous natural language conversations, individuals are encouraged to recall previous interactions and reflect on their own understanding of different topics in ways that lead to longer-lasting knowledge retention – rather than simply reciting rehearsed information. These skills will trickle down into peer-to-peer collaboration, helping employees to develop the ability to ask the right questions, listen closely, and actively work to identify key pieces of information that will empower them to communicate more effectively.

Provide mentorship opportunities are key
Perhaps one thing that employees miss the most about the days of full-time office work, is the ability to collaborate and interact with their peers. It follows naturally that younger members of an organization may miss out on crucial opportunities to connect with more seasoned staff and hone their skills.

Thankfully, these opportunities can be replicated in hybrid and remote settings. Business leaders would do well to actively develop remote mentorship opportunities, where knowledgeable employees can impart their wisdom to junior members of staff. This can take the shape of ‘shadowing’, where employees sit in on their mentor’s meetings with higher management to observe adept leadership in action.

The growing proliferation of promising solutions like virtual reality (VR) will help to plug the geographical gaps that have recently come into play, enabling individuals to immerse themselves in situational learning experiences even from outside the four walls of the office. VR simulations can be used, for instance, to practice a sales pitch in a low-pressure environment, thereby developing presentation skills and receiving real-time feedback.

Ultimately, while I concede that soft skills can be rather nebulous and difficult to quantify, I firmly believe that they are vital to any happy and productive workplace. Training managers must therefore create meaningful opportunities for workers to develop these skills, whether staff are working from home, or heading back to the office.

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