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How to Develop a Remote Soft Skills Strategy

Jason Richmond
Chief Culture Officer and Founder at Ideal Outcomes

The following is a post from Jason Richmond, President/CEO and Chief Culture Officer for Ideal Outcomes, Inc., a company that has developed remote learning programs for companies of all sizes. Additionally, Jason is the author of Culture Spark: 5 Steps to Ignite and Sustain Organizational Growth

Every year, LinkedIn publishes a “Top Skills” list, which analyzes its huge professional social network to rank which skills are in top demand, yet low supply. LinkedIn Learning editor Paul Petrone wrote in a blog post that 57 percent of senior leaders on the platform say soft skills are more critical to their businesses than hard skills.  According to Inc.com, the top five skills are creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability, and emotional intelligence.  

Global HR consulting firm DDI provides a different perspective. In a study that correlated soft skills with performance, they found that empathy was king. More specifically, empathy was the top interaction skill driving overall performance, decision making, coaching, engaging, and planning and organizing. However, empathy was one of the lowest scoring skills among the frontline leaders they assessed. 

The Society for Human Resources (SHRM) took a slightly different approach by looking at the top skills missing in job applicants. In short supply: problem solving, ability to deal with complexity and ambiguity, and communications. 

Reading these articles and research can be overwhelming for leaders and talent management professionals for several reasons, especially at a time when everyone is working remotely. First, although there is overlap as to the skill priorities, there is enough variation to create confusion (how are you doing with dealing with ambiguity right now?). Second, it can be challenging to assess employees’ soft skills in an objective manner. Third, there are deep-seated beliefs that such skills are hard to train and even harder to measure, even as the workplace becomes digital.   


Let’s start with the priorities: what soft skills should an organization focus on first? One of the reasons organizations hesitate to invest in soft skills development is such programs have not demonstrated much impact. In large part, this is because organizations do not define upfront why they are targeting such development and the goals they want to achieve. Even if they define the purpose, they do not align it with business objectives. Here is a six-step process to help you develop a more successful soft skills strategy. 

  1. Determine the right development team: HR and Talent Management cannot tackle this project alone. Put together a small team of ten to twelve people who have strong soft skills and represent key operational functions: field employees, frontline employees, middle managers, along with a couple of leaders who will champion the cause. Include one or two high potential employees who, if they have been identified wisely, will possess many of the skills you want to develop in others.  
     
  2. Begin with a focus on business needs: What’s going on in your business? What are your top two or three business strategies? What aspects of your business are of priority, especially during COVID-19? Do you want to improve employee engagement and talent retention in the midst of uncertainty?
     
  3. Determine the soft skills most impactful for achieving those strategies: For example, if customer satisfaction scores are low, look to the skill sets demonstrated by your customer facing personnel. Are they friendly? Are they good listeners? How well do they manage their time and follow up? What are the typical service complaints—are they product related or people related? If a goal is to increase innovation, what key behaviors are lacking that drive innovation? Are talented employees micromanaged, for example? Are managers good at supporting risk taking? Or are mistakes harshly criticized? This is a simple, yet compelling and relevant way to do a business focused needs analysis and tie your interventions to business impact. In current times where most employees are working from home through web conferencing, email, and chat tools, soft skills will be further amplified. The data that may be most compelling is noticing what differences there may be after six months. 
     
  4. Consider the importance of empathy: There are many definitions of empathy, perhaps the simplest being the ability to sense others’ feelings coupled with the ability to imagine what they might be feeling or thinking. Empathy is tied to emotional intelligence and many researchers have proven empathy to be a requirement for successful leadership.  No matter what your other business needs are, you can safely assume this gap exists in your organization, especially given current working arrangements. The challenge is in determining where these gaps lie and the associated behavioral gaps. 

    There are a number of tools that can help, including the MBTI (Myers Briggs) (useful for increasing self-awareness of personality and helping people better understand the similarities and differences they have others) and the Personal Strengths Profile (PSP) (insight into personality, communication and problem-solving styles). Additionally, Harvard’s Professional Development Extension School recommends these tools: Mind Tools Quiz, Institute for Health and Human Potential, and TalentSmart. Such tools can help you analyze gaps more specifically so that you can develop programs to address them. 360 assessments will give you insight into your management and leadership soft skills as will data from employee and engagement surveys. Look for patterns of gaps and focus on your top issues.  
     
  5. Plan your curriculum and delivery methods: Once you have a solid understanding of your business needs, the soft skills needed to drive them, and the current gaps in your organization, you are ready to design your program strategy. Take into consideration that such skills need practice and feedback. With everyone working remotely, self-paced online programs or live face-to-face coaching can be good approaches. Consider cohort development as well, where you create groups of peers who coach and give ongoing feedback to each other following meetings, team discussions, or agile scrum sessions.
     
  6. Measure progress and results: Develop a simple, visual scorecard to track your progress quarterly. Data points you can include are relevant business metrics, feedback from program participants, shifts in 360 scores, data from spot employee surveys, and turnover. Base your tracking on the goals you established at the beginning of the process.

Long term job and organizational success depends heavily on soft skills mastery, and can even be accomplished online. Such mastery takes time, meaning the sooner you start, the sooner you will have a positive impact on your organization. 

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