Soft Skills in the Workplace: Why They Matter for Your Organization

As technology continues to change the nature of work and human interaction, companies worldwide are scrambling to hire employees with “hard” skills like engineering and machine learning.

While those technical skills are important, research shows that so-called “soft” skills consistently rank among the traits that companies need most, especially amid the disruption caused by COVID-19.

What Are Soft and Hard Skills?

So, what’s the difference between soft skills vs. hard skills? While the term “hard skills” generally refers to specific and technical knowledge sets (such as programming languages or data analytics), soft skills in the workplace are by nature more cross-functional. Rather than mapping to a particular task, soft skills are the traits that allow employees to be effective both as individual contributors and as colleagues. 

Chart comparing hard (technical) skills and soft skills in the workplace

Soft skills include social-emotional capabilities and traits like adaptability and resilience. While they are often seen as innate personality traits, most people can build up their soft skills through study and practice, just like they might build a set of hard skills. 

What Are Examples of Soft Skills in the Workplace? 

The category of soft skills includes sought-after traits such as:

  • Interpersonal communication skills
  • Storytelling
  • Time management
  • Organizational abilities
  • Problem-solving 
  • Ability to adapt to change
  • Resilience
  • Ability to accept feedback
  • Teamwork
  • Critical thinking
  • Creativity
  • Design thinking
  • Innovation
  • Leadership
  • Empathy

In the Emeritus 2021 Global Career Impact Survey, we found the following soft skills had the highest demand among professionals looking to upskill their teams or organizations: management/leadership (34%), critical thinking (24%), design thinking/creativity (24%), problem-solving (20%), innovation (20%), storytelling (17%), communication (15%).

Bar graphic showing leadership, critical thinking, and creativity as top soft skills in demand
Source: Emeritus 2021 Global Career Impact Survey

Similarly, the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs 2020 report found that the No. 1 skill employees will need by 2025 is analytical thinking and innovation.

Why Are Soft Skills Important in the Workplace? 

Simply put, soft skills are what set the best-performing employees and organizations apart. In fact, they’re so essential that LinkedIn research found that when new employees don’t last at a company, 89% of the time it’s because they lack soft skills. 

As an example, imagine a highly innovative tech startup. While the development of the product itself is essential, if the startup’s leadership cannot inspire and motivate employees or tell the story of what makes their product special, it may never see the light of day.

Or take a mid-level employee tasked with client relations at a large financial institution. Suppose that employee isn’t able to communicate with clients professionally and empathetically or stay organized and ensure deliverables are completed on time. The business’ bottom line might suffer.

While they were important before the pandemic, soft skills are absolutely essential in our current reality. As McKinsey & Company reports, the ability to maintain strong team and client relationships virtually and operate with reduced oversight will make or break today’s teams. 

In today’s workplaces, even the most technically gifted employees will need to demonstrate soft skills such as dependability and creative thinking to flourish. Companies simply cannot afford to overlook these traits any longer.

How to Build Soft Skills in the Workplace

Since soft skills tend to be nuanced and often rely on interpreting complex social signals, many organizations and managers worry they can’t be taught through employee training. Yet, while they may not be as simple to convey as technical skills—and improvements may not be as easy to measure—it’s more than possible to help employees advance in these areas. 

Companies should consider the following strategies when upskilling employees and building soft skills in the workplace.

1. Identify Areas for Improvement

While soft skills can seem hard to pin down, existing data can often provide a solid starting point for companies looking to improve in this area. 

For example, customer satisfaction data is invaluable for identifying gaps in employees’ communications and customer relations skills. If customers report unhelpful or unempathetic service, it’s more than likely that the customer service team could use training to develop soft skills such as communication and handling difficult conversations. 

Similarly, if a team frequently misses deadlines or fails to consider essential information, they may need additional support in building time management and organizational processes. 

2. Encourage Individual Feedback and Mentorship

At the level of individual employees, performance reviews and 360-degree reviews—where feedback is provided by an employee’s peers and reports—are invaluable sources of data on areas of strength and weakness. Managers can review the data they collect to identify patterns and develop specific plans focusing on how to improve soft skills. 

Individual managers are often best placed to provide nuanced assessments of employees’ soft skills and in-the-moment feedback.

Since concepts like the appropriate tone to take in a professional email or the ideal way to deescalate a tricky interaction can be hard to convey in the abstract, managers are uniquely positioned to respond to an evolving situation and either coach employees on how to handle it or share the positives and negatives of their approach. 

3. Lead by Example

Managers and mentors also have the opportunity to teach by example. 

Lower-level employees will naturally tend to take their managers’ behavior and actions into account when forming their own ideas about professional norms. This makes it especially important that organizational leaders are strong models of soft skills. 

4. Weigh Internal Development Opportunities

While individual feedback is invaluable, employees at all levels can also benefit from receiving formalized, scaffolded training to help them develop and maximize their soft skills. 

Internally, companies might consider team, division, or organization-wide trainings or programs that formalize murkier topics like adapting to change or teamwork. Soft skills with more concrete applications, like organization or time management, are particularly well-suited to this type of approach. Some companies are even using emerging technology like virtual reality to provide this type of training.

5. Put Soft Skills Into Practice

Other soft skills, like project management or creativity, can be developed through a combination of training programs and hands-on assignments or exercises. For example, an employee might be asked to bring their own campaign ideas to a planning meeting at which they receive feedback, or even be given an opportunity to lead a project that would normally be handled by their manager. Non-critical projects in particular are often rich with opportunities for developing employees.

6. Consider External Soft Skills Training

When internal training isn’t enough, many organizations send employees through external courses or programs to develop essential soft skills. This approach can pay dividends when it comes to skills like strategic thinking or innovation. Often, an outside perspective is what’s needed to freshen up an organization’s approach. 

Options for external training might include small private online courses like those Emeritus offers, either for individual or group enrollment

Emeritus courses designed to build soft skills cover topics ranging from design thinking and creativity to leading organizations, with dozens of offerings in between. Since academic and professional leaders design and teach these courses, which include participants from a wide range of industries, they offer professionals the tools they need to see problems from new and innovative angles. 

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Is your team or organization ready to level up with the soft skills it needs to stay innovative and effective? Learn more about how Emeritus can help you design and deliver courses taught by faculty at top universities to prepare your employees for tomorrow.

By Rachel Hastings

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