Almost a third (29%) of UK employers are redesigning job roles to manage the impacts of Covid-19, according to Robert Half – and while technical capabilities remain crucial to recovery plans, two fifths of executives cite soft skills as key to tackling ongoing, pandemic-related uncertainty. (Robert Half UK Press Office, 17 September 2020)
The recruiter notes that UK firms are seeking to embrace change and build more agile, adaptable workforces. As such, roles in HR, talent acquisition and office support are not just in higher demand, but have grown more important because of the assistance they provide to a) business transformation efforts and b) remote workers who are learning new processes and functions.
Indeed, more than 40% of senior figures are looking to fast-track digital transformation over the rest of this year, while a third (32%) are prioritising their e-commerce strategies.
In line with those findings, Robert Half has seen a surge in demand for tech roles – including network architects and developers – as firms upgrade or expand their IT and online-revenue systems in response to shifting consumer demands and high levels of remote working.
But despite an increased focus on technical capabilities for certain roles, 41% of executives believe that soft skills will be essential going forward. The top soft skills currently in demand are creative thinking (38%) and agility (36%), highlighting the importance of innovative, flexible teams to help firms recover. Effective communication (35%), strong leadership (33%) and strategic thinking (29%) are also in high demand.
In a statement, Robert Half UK managing director Matt Weston said: “The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the way many of us do business, both now and in the future. Remote working has enabled talent pools around the world to open up which, for some companies, means that existing employees with key skills can be redeployed in the short-term to deliver business-critical roles. For others, however, changing customer demands and new working patterns have meant skills gaps have suddenly appeared – for digital transformation and e-commerce, in particular.”
How should leaders redesign job roles in ways that put a greater emphasis on soft skills? And which steps can they take to ensure that those skills help to boost workers’ technical abilities?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “I’ve spoken quite frequently on our News & Views blogs about how the quick switch to home working relied very much upon developing new processes, alongside firms’ heavy reliance on various pieces of technology. But in so many organisations, the qualities that made that switch work were the energy and enthusiasm of the staff who wanted to make it happen, and were prepared to put time into connecting and relating in new and different ways – that is, virtually, instead of face to face.”
She notes: “This has reminded us that the work of leaders and managers is about far more than technical skills. It’s also about that process of relating. As Peter Drucker pointed out, the need to work at relationships is a leadership imperative: there’s no choice in the matter – you should be working on them all the time. So when we think about not so much ‘job design’, but what’s truly essential for a job, we must take seriously the ability to relate and emotional intelligence – plus a willingness to work on those capabilities – and recognise that they’re not second-class assets.”
Zeroing in on that theme, Cooper argues: “The term ‘soft skills’ has done this very challenging area of leading and managing a total disservice, because it implies that those skills are somehow less than. But as so many studies show, an ability to relate, get on with people, empathise, be self-aware and control your emotions is a more significant predictor of success than either IQ or technical knowledge.”
She adds: “Perhaps what this means is that we’re going to have to look at new ways of recruiting, and switch our emphasis to the right people for the job – in terms of how they work in the round – rather than individuals who simply have the right technical abilities. I say ‘in the round’ because it doesn’t have to be either-or. If the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that technical innovation is critical – indeed, studies have highlighted an intent among many employers to keep investing in communications tools – but so are people who can galvanise team spirit and maintain high levels of collective motivation and morale.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on developing talent