The Rising Importance of Soft Skills in an Automated Workplace

This article was first published and featured on TrainingIndustry.com October 22, 2018, Taryn Oesch, CPTM

Earlier this month, Alexandra Levit, author of “Humanity Works,” wrote for TrainingIndustry.com, “In a business climate dominated by human/machine collaboration,” the skills that make us human are more important than ever. Similarly, Doug Harward and Ken Taylor of Training Industry, Inc. wrote last winter, “While technology is helping lead innovation, developing our soft skills is necessary to stay relevant, communicate value and supplement those important technical skills.” In other words, soft skills are increasingly the skills that will make employees – and the organizations they work for – more competitive.

 Photo by  Alex Knight  on  Unsplash

Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash

The Impact of Automation on Work

“For many people,” says Paul Bagley, chief learning officer of Unify (the communications and collaboration brand of digital services company Atos), “automation can represent an opportunity to avoid workplace routines and tedious repetitive tasks and instead focus on engaging with or following newer or more high-value actions.” While many employees will be excited by this opportunity, others may “feel threatened by the removal of their daily routine and worry that they might lose their jobs as a result.” Whether employees feel optimistic or worried will impact their willingness to participate in training and their subsequent engagement in that training.

Automation innovation is moving so quickly, says Kristy McCann Flynn, founder and CEO of GoCoach, that many individuals and organizations are struggling to keep up. “If anything, the benefits of automation will be hindered by lack of training and development to get the workforce the skills they need to complement automation.”

Whether employees feel optimistic or worried will impact their willingness to participate in training and their subsequent engagement in that training.
— Taryn Oesch

Training Employees on Soft Skills

In a recent Atos survey, the top three skills chief information officers identified as the ones organizations most need in the face of disruptive change were the “ability to cope with change and ambiguity,” communication skills, and “understanding the impact of technology on business.”

Unfortunately, Bagley says, many organizations are focusing on technical skills at the expense of soft skills, especially if they feel their technical talent isn’t competitive with other organizations in their industry, or if their industry is an especially technical one. But “focusing on technical skills answers the question of ‘what we do’ but not ‘how we do it,’ and for that, interpersonal skills are essential.”

Many leaders have not learned how to communicate clearly, inspire their teams, hold performance conversations and drive change, Bagley says. Leadership training programs should teach them these skills, as well as helping them stay “abreast of technological advances and help their respective workforces understand the potential impacts of such change.” Emotional intelligence tops McCann Flynn’s list of required skills, which also includes “curiosity, understanding and leading with best intentions.”

To develop these skills in leaders, Bagley recommends hosting internal and external seminars, delivering just-in-time content from “industry-recognized” providers, and using case studies and other standard leadership training tools. “Having a standardized leadership/managerial development program that is well-promoted and advertised sends a clear message to everyone within an organization,” and providing a blend of approaches will help ensure you appeal to diverse learners.

McCann Flynn adds that organizations should also use values-based coaching to develop leaders’ skills. “Every company needs to have a core set of values of how people will work together, create together and lead together,” she says. “Coaching will help to reinforce the values [through] … personalized learning at scale.” Values are also a way to measure leaders’ progress.

Use values-based coaching to develop leaders’ skills and measure their progress.
— Kristy MCCann

Measure leaders’ soft skills through 360- or 180-degree assessment tools, personality profiles, key performance indicators, exit and stay interviews, and self-assessments. Learners can use these assessments to improve their skills, and the L&D team can use them “to explore relevant trends their leaders embody, prioritize how to evaluate them, and then provide useful recommendations surrounding future leadership training.”

Regardless of your industry, automation is going to make a big impact on your company and your employees in the near future, if it hasn’t already. Fortunately, there are still a lot of skills that machines can’t learn. Those soft skills are the ones your employees, and especially your leaders, need to master for your company to be competitive.

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Kristy McCann