Those who are looking for a job in today’s remote or hybrid workforce better brush up on their soft skills.

They’re the skills that revolve less around the specifics of a job, and more around how a candidate fits into the corporate culture of your workforce and how well they play with others. They’re less about how well someone performs a task and more about how he or she performs in a team-building project.

Cali Gold, head of people at global insure-tech company YuLife, says soft skills involve “character traits, values, professionalism and collaboration.”

Charlotte de Metz, chief people officer at global auto dealership tech provider Keyloop, says hard skills are more about whether there’s a “tick in the box or no tick in the box. Soft skills are more problematic because you really have to dig a bit deeper for them.”

So why are they important now?

“There’s far more emphasis now on hiring people who are a cultural fit,” Gold said. “For example, how well can a manager manage a team remotely? Do they understand the nuances of giving negative feedback over Zoom? Do they understand the nuances of having conversations that are not transactional but work to understand what’s happening behind the screen with their staff?”

When a room isn’t a room

In today’s meetings, it’s much more difficult to read the room because the room isn’t a room, according to de Metz.

When you’re together in a single space, “you can see and feel the body language,” de Metz said. “You can sense whether there’s been some cross words or debate that’s gotten more aggressive. When you’re on a Zoom call, you don’t always pick that up. If you have people in India, where the connection may not be that good, or someone’s in Germany and [they have a thick accent that is hard to understand], it’s so much harder.”

“Now you’ve got to use your senses to figure out what the mood is and how you’re going to work with that,” she added. “It’s a bit like going dating — maybe your date had a bad day or they’re late and they’re panicking.”

In addition, de Metz would question if the potential leader can read the signals that this may be good person at a bad time and not someone that should be quickly dismissed? Is he or she willing to work with that person to make their day better?

If making someone feel comfortable and trusting comes easy, that’s great, says de Metz. If it doesn’t, this potential leader is going to have to work at it.

The days of the tyrannical, threatening manager are becoming a thing of the past almost everywhere, she notes.

20 questions

Gold at YuLife uses the term “speed dating” to explain what the process is like for discerning an applicant’s soft skills.

“We have about 20 questions — they may not all be asked — to get a sense of who the individual is and what they value,” Gold said.

“It’s crucial to understand a person’s management style, how they work with their team, how they care for the team. We ask for obvious examples of where they’ve gone above and beyond for someone on their team who is a) a high performer, b) a low performer or c) someone who may have personal issues and has had a performance drop,” she noted.

Gold added that it’s important for the interviewer to understand the performative nature of the job interview.

“In any interview, you’ve got adrenaline going, there’s a bit of a facade,” she said. But the goal of the process “is to try to choose a partner you may be working with for eight hours a day, five days a week for a number of years. It’s a huge commitment to make.”

De Metz offered a scenario that might be presented to a job candidate:

“’You are in a meeting room and some of the debate gets a little bit personal and out of hand. How would you deal with that situation and what would you do in that circumstance? By people’s answers you can tell whether they’re authentic or trying to give a textbook answer. You get a feel from their energy and/or passion,” she said.

“But not everyone is going to have soft skills straightaway, de Metz added. “Some people are going to have to work quite hard and may need some coaching around that. They may not tick all the soft-skill boxes now, but if they’ve got all of the hard skills, we may have to invest in helping them through that.”

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Gold says there are ways to get workers over the soft-skills hump.

“It’s very important to make clear what softer skill sets they’re lacking and demonstrate that to them with tangible, objective examples,” she said.

She adds you might tell a manager that “there have been instances where you haven’t been the most empathetic or the most empowering to your team.”

Still, “if that message is delivered in the wrong manner, it can be quite a personal attack on someone’s character” — which would defeat the purpose of the feedback, Gold emphasized.

But it’s not about turning Mr. Hyde into Dr. Jekyll, according to de Metz.

“I don’t think you can change someone’s personality, but what you can do is elevate their understanding of where their soft skills are lacking and try to get them to work a little harder,” she said.

“If you’ve got someone who’s very introverted and might not make small talk at the start of a meeting, maybe you give them a cheat sheet [with some ice-breaker questions]. ‘How’s the family?’ ‘How was your weekend?’ It’s about being able to dial up and dial down one’s personality, depending on the situation,” de Metz said.

‘Care and compassion’

“Softer skills flourish in a working environment that is characterized by care and compassion,” Gold noted, adding that YuLife does many things to make that a reality, including sending new remote employees a chair and a desk if they don’t have a comfortable home workspace.

“We work to ensure that people’s families, people’s well-being comes before anything,” she said.

Gold stressed one other point that often is overlooked in corporate culture —that most companies require both hard skills and soft skills. Having great technical or hard skills does not necessarily mean you are ready to direct a team, she says.

“It’s important to be really honest about what career progression means,” Gold said. “You might be fantastic at what you do in a discipline that you own, but that doesn’t necessarily make you a good manager — and I think that’s such a corporate misconception. I’d say nine times out of 10, that way of thinking creates bad managers and managers who lack soft-skill sets. Those two worlds are so far apart.”

Both de Metz and Gold agree that employers must provide ways to progress on both the hard-skill and soft-skill tracks.

Tips from Charlotte de Metz of Keyloop and Cali Gold of YuLife

  • Have companywide values that stress concern for the well-being of your employees.
  • Understand the importance of soft skills, including compassion, communication. transparency, vulnerability and seeking win-win synergies.
  • Hire applicants whose soft skills fit those values.
  • Have a robust onboarding process for new hires.
  • Offer coaching and feedback to improve the soft skills of employees.

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