How to identify and develop soft skills in a pandemic

Soft skills you pick up along the way can help you to be an effective team member

You can ask friends, colleagues, and former employers which soft skills come to mind when they think of you. Photograph: iStock

You can ask friends, colleagues, and former employers which soft skills come to mind when they think of you. Photograph: iStock

 

There has been much talk in recent months about the demise of the office.

When the first cases of Covid-19 were detected in the State and the virus began to spread, many businesses were shuttered overnight. Those that could stay open had to find a new way of doing things.

Running a business or any remotely complex endeavour involving the co-operation of hundreds of people is difficult enough at the best of times. What the pandemic has done is compound that difficulty further by forcing all those people to work apart from one another.

That is why now, more than ever, soft skills are crucial to identify, develop, and showcase to your employer or prospective employer. Here we will explain why and provide some tips.

Generation Z had access to things like the internet, touchscreens and mobile devices all their life, and it’s second nature to them

Firstly, what are soft skills? These are those skills which you don’t so much get taught at school, but pick up along the way and which help you to be an effective member of a team.

Most of the experts agree the key ones are things like communication skills, teamwork, problem solving, creativity, adaptability, critical thinking, leadership and innovation.

It doesn’t matter how clever the people are or how brilliant the idea is if the business or organisation is plagued by poor communication, poor leadership or a lack of flexibility.

Hard skills are things like computer skills, numeracy, project management, data analytics and programming. But all these things all underpinned by being able to communicate them well or being able to work in a team delivering those skills.

Communication skills involve taking often large pieces of information and making persuasive arguments to bring people on board with it. They also involve the ability to get your ideas across to other people. Achieving this involves the need for strong presentation skills, and very strong written skills.

Generation Z

Jack Kennedy, an economist and researcher at Indeed’s Hiring Lab, says most students graduating and entering the workforce now are from Generation Z, which he describes as “the first generation of true digital natives”.

“They’ve had access to things like the internet, touchscreens and mobile devices all their life, and it’s second nature to them,” he says. “As a result, they’re hypervisual, with strong technical skills and are great multitaskers.

“This gives them a great advantage in the current world of work. With so many jobs moving remotely, they are likely to adapt to this new environment much better than their predecessors in what is becoming an increasingly digital world.”

It is within this context that Kennedy says the power of soft skills must not be underestimated.

Graduates will have become skilled in team work but now they are faced with remote collaboration in which communication is very important

“These are skills like communication, problem solving and leadership,” he says. “They are highly valued because they can be difficult to teach and are often inherent to our personality.

“When looking at skills that transfer across professions, soft skills tend to be needed across the board, so are valuable to highlight in your CV. While hard skills are necessary for completing technical tasks, soft skills will make you the kind of worker employers want to hire, keep and promote.”

One of the first things you can do to develop these skills is to engage in a little self-reflection. Which of these skills are counted among your strengths and which of them need work?

This process does not have to be a solo one. You can – if you think you can handle it – ask friends, colleagues, and even former employers which soft skills come to mind when they think of you and which they feel need improvement.

Some soft skills are much harder to develop and demonstrate, such as how curious or creative or innovative you are as an individual. One way to cultivate this is to develop an interest in people and the world around you, as well as find out more about them and how they relate to you.

There are also online courses you can take that will teach you how to develop soft skills such as project management and negotiation. Popular websites that offer courses to learn soft skills include Coursera and Lynda.

Team work

Marie Laffey and Claire Murphy, both from NUI Galway’s Career Development Centre, say the new normal of remote working – which some say will be with us long after the pandemic has passed – make soft skills all the more important.

“Graduates will have become skilled in team work but now they are faced with remote collaboration in which communication is very important,” they say. “This is an important skill for a graduate to convey to employers.

“Graduates must know how to articulate their new ideas but also know how to research and communicate their needs so graduates should not be afraid to ask their manager questions and reach out to their team for support.

“Networking is a very important skill and many graduates network to secure jobs or navigate their career. Socialisation is one of our basic needs but is also a very important aspect of work.

“Virtual socializing can help graduates navigate their career but also build stronger working relationships, therefore it is imperative to network within your company and attend virtual coffees or virtual events.”

Another way to develop these skills is to join a club, volunteer for a charity, or just get involved in any group endeavour whatsoever. These types of environments allow you to take charge and seek to solve problems.

Deirdre Parker, careers advisor at UCC, has some ideas for ways to develop these skills and showcase them to employers.

“While qualifications are invaluable, they are not the only way to upskill,” she says. “Think creatively of practical ways that you can showcase your skillset to an employer. This might be as simple and yet challenging as taking on a voluntary role in your local club.

“Or approaching a charity who works in your area of interest to propose under-taking a part-time research project. The list of possibilities is endless if you focus on the skill you need to gain or improve, and brainstorm ways of developing it.”