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As companies adjust to the new normal, staff are often challenged to demonstrate soft skills like resilience, empathy and agility.fizkes/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Any remaining doubts about the value of soft skills were likely abandoned in recent months as the pandemic forced the country to dramatically change its work practices overnight.

As companies began adjusting to the new normal, their staff were often challenged to demonstrate soft skills like resilience, empathy and agility while completely overhauling their communication, collaboration and other standard work habits.

In recent years, many Canadian employers have increased their emphasis on these soft skills, often citing the potential for disruption and uncertainty. Those efforts have been largely validated by the recent coronavirus outbreak.

According to a 2018 survey of business leaders by the Business Council of Canada, industry-specific knowledge and experience weren’t among the top five most important attributes of an entry-level hire. Instead, employers listed collaboration, communication, problem solving, analytical capabilities and resiliency as their top priorities. Furthermore, industry-specific knowledge and experience only ranked fourth among the attributes employers were most interested in among mid-level hires.

Employees and candidates alike ranked having a “purpose-driven and caring mindset” as the No. 1 trait they wanted to see in their leaders, followed by an embrace of technology and agility, according to a recent study by LinkedIn. LinkedIn’s Canada Country Manager, Jonathan Lister, believes the data reflect how a new generation of employees is demanding a new type of leader, and the value of those traits has been validated by the pandemic.

“Employees expect leaders to be inspiring, to be emotionally intelligent, to have good listening and communication skills,” he says. “I think they’ve become more important because the workplace has changed reasonably significantly and continues to change.”

According to Mr. Lister, demand for skills training through the LinkedIn Learning platform has increased five-fold over the past year. Today, the most in-demand LinkedIn Learning programs offer training on less traditional workplace skills, such as mindfulness and stress management, how to give and receive feedback, and change management.

“With coronavirus, we’re getting a mix of personal and professional topics in the workplace in ways we haven’t before, and I think that’s putting more emphasis on the requirement for soft skills,” Mr. Lister adds. “The ones who have invested early in both hard-skills and soft-skills training have probably benefited the most.”

The need for soft skills is especially acute among Canada’s small-business owners, 81 per cent of whom have been negatively affected by the pandemic, and 32 per cent of whom are concerned about the viability of their business, according to a recent study by CIBC.

“Companies change and they pivot and they have to adapt quickly to changing market conditions, and the pandemic is a really good example of that; we’ve all had to change and shift and be flexible with how we work,” explains Cissy Pau, the principal consultant at Vancouver-based small-business consulting agency Clear HR Consulting. “That’s the beauty of a small business; you can change relatively quickly if the people you have working there can adapt relatively quickly.”

While the pandemic has further emphasized the value of being adaptable and flexible, there remains a gap between the skills that employers are demanding and the skills recent graduates can offer, according to a study conducted by the Conference Board of Canada.

The report explores how educational institutions are struggling to equip graduates with the most in-demand soft skills in the job market and concludes that we’ve only just begun to understand how much of an impact those attributes can have. According to the report’s authors, the pandemic will only further emphasize the value of those attributes in the workplace moving forward.

“As time has gone on, we become more specific about what those skills actually are that make for a good employee or a good manager,” explains Stephen Higham, a research associate for the Conference Board of Canada. “The pandemic re-emphasizes the importance of these skills, and not just for employees, but the social and emotional skills of leaders as well,” adds senior research associate Maria Giammarco.

According to its authors, the study was originally inspired by the rise of automation, artificial intelligence and the potential threat of further technological disruption, but has taken on a different and perhaps greater significance since the pandemic began.

“There has not been a conversation in light of the pandemic around automation and AI and what robots are doing for us; it’s about the important people, the service providers and front-line workers, and how well they’re providing and caring for people,” explains Matthew McKean, the Conference Board’s director of education and skills. “It’s an interesting confluence of events that has led to a real underlying of the need for human skills.”

Dr. McKean, Dr. Giammarco and Mr. Higham suggest that these social and emotional skills are only going to increase in value as the workplace continues to evolve as a result of the pandemic, automation and the expectation of more disruptions in the future.

“No matter what happens, we’re going to continue to place value on those skills that help people navigate crises like problem solving, critical thinking, creativity and empathy,” Mr. Higham says. “I can’t imagine that trend slowing down any time soon.”

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