A hypothetical example: two candidates apply for the same job at a company, both are extremely talented, qualified for the said role, both have a few years of experience in the field. It seems like it would be a hard choice for the interviewers to pick between two very talented candidates, however, during the interview, one of the candidates easily outshines the other and is eventually selected. What could have been the deciding factor? Workplace skills. Right from the initial stages of talent acquisition, HR professionals and employers are carefully on the lookout for certain workplace skills that are essential to their work culture. These key skills are broadly divided into two categories: hard and soft skills.
Hard skills are those that we go to universities to learn; they are often technical in nature and specific to an industry or job. Examples include accounting, strategic planning, designing, writing and software programming etc. On the other hand, soft skills are not specific to any industry or job but in fact soft skills can be extremely beneficial in all areas of life in general. From a business perspective, soft skills fall into the category of interpersonal skills in the workplace and are usually self-taught or developed by one’s life experiences. Empathy, listening ability, humility, effective communication, critical thinking and problem solving abilities, self confidence, self awareness and emotional intelligence all belong to this category. In simple terms, hard skills are teachable and soft skills warrant cultivation.
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Often both these skills are compared against the other as to determine the importance of hard skills vs soft skills in the workplace. However, both are equally important and in fact complementary to each other. Employers these days are putting emphasis on acquiring and enhancing both types of workplace skills for better productivity. Why does having soft skills in the workplace suddenly gained so much importance?
The answer lies in digital technology taking over the business realm. Machine learning and artificial intelligence have made it easy for businesses to collect and study a vast number of data about almost everything whether or not it is found on a digital platform. Many tasks that were once fulfilled by humans are now becoming automated. This has resulted in certain job tasks to be switched over to artificial intelligence shifting the focus from hard skills to soft skills.
A certain popular employment-oriented, business networking website has access to a huge amount of data regarding the types of skills that job-seekers possess and those that top employers are seeking. One important finding that resulted from analyzing the data was that there is a huge skill gap amongst the two parties – employment seekers and potential employers. Quite interestingly, this skill gap is concentrated in the soft skills category i.e. effective communication and managing feedback.
Traditionally, the importance of soft skills has been ignored at large, however, with the advent of the information era there has been a shift in the scheme of things. Human resource professionals and employers are more likely to choose a candidate who possesses these valuable workplace skills. As soft skills are very difficult to be replicated and automated, their value has greatly increased over time. However, another key question arises. Are employees being rewarded for their possession of soft skills as much as the hard skills? Studies show an undesirable outcome. One research found that jobs requiring hard skills pay twice as much as those that need soft skills. Pointing towards the vast difference in return on investment between the two.
The same research noted that there is a good chance that employees do not focus on honing their soft skills in the workplace due to the fact that they are not incentivised to do so by the employers. The narrative around the importance of workplace skills is still in its infancy. If such important skills are not rewarded then they stand to lose their value over time; and focus will be only on what is rewarded i.e. hard skills or technical skills. Businesses need to re-imagine the workplace culture and ensure that all types of skills are being rewarded as per their true value. That will in turn ensure that leaders who possess the value of soft skills will actually bring the full spectrum of human skills to their workplace and in turn benefit the organization to a great extent.
When it comes to workplace skills, the unbalanced approach towards hard skills and soft skills has become a vicious cycle. Soft skills have been ignored by not just the employers (in that the employees are not rewarded for having them,) but also the employees who have come to conclude that interpersonal and communication skills are not important in the workplace. So they tend to equate incentives with value and find that technical and vocational skills are better paid and hence hold more value. Some companies claim they want more people with soft skills but when it comes to practicing soft skills on the floor, they are lagging way behind. Most companies are still reliant on email communication in the workplace, and do not emphasize on incorporating soft skills effectively in the work culture. How can you expect your employees to practice something that you don’t yourself?
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Our education and organizational framework was modeled on the vantage point of industrialism. Strict working hours, 5-6 days a week and only a fifteen minute lunch break perhaps a 5 minute coffee/tea break. But today we have come far from the Industrial Era and are now at quite a ripe stage in the Information Era. The knowledge economy has changed our lives both socially and professionally. The modern workplace sees people socializing and dealing with each other. The new work culture requires employees and leaders to effectively communicate, negotiate, and compromise in a healthy working environment, which helps enhance productivity, performance and eventually improves the company’s bottom line. However, relatively sound knowledge of certain hard skills also makes for an asset.
Conclusively, employers who press for both hard and soft skills from their current and potential employees must see to it that both the types of skills are equally rewarded to maintain their value. If no effort is made in this direction on the part of HR and organizations, then soft skills in the workplace will soon disappear and humans will more or less become machines working with machines.
- “Are hard and soft skills rewarded equally?,” Julie Avrane-Chopard and Jaime Potter, November 4th 2019
- “Are Hard Skills Or Soft Skills More Important To Be An Effective Leader?,” Naz Beheshti,September 24th 2018
- “Difference between hard and soft skills,” careersblog.enterprise.co.uk