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Alan Hiddleston


Director Corporate Learning,

Read more from Alan Hiddleston

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How can learners practise soft skills in a virtual world?

L&D will have to change to meet the ‘new normal’ skills gap.

As technologies such as automation, data analytics and AI have gradually permeated the working world, we have witnessed a shift in the skills businesses require from their employees. In years gone by, hard technical skills were those that drove value within a business, but as technology developed at a remarkable pace, it became clear that no human could hope to match modern technology solutions.

Although L&D professionals and employees largely agree that soft skills need to be cultivated within the workforce to meet the skills gap, there was one key issue of contention – opportunities for real-world practice.

The focus then switched to developing softer, more human skills such as leadership, emotional intelligence and teamwork that are less easily emulated by software or hardware. The key issue has been that soft skills are more difficult to teach than technical skills, as they are less information based and more reliant on practice and understanding. Teaching these skills en masse to an entire workforce only complicates matters further.

Changing L&D programmes

L&D practitioners have been conscious of these shifting needs for some time of course. In our own recent research of UK L&D professionals, we found that that 74% of them recognised the rise of automation and AI is having a serious effect on their workforce, and 59% have subsequently adapted their L&D programmes to address this challenge.

This is certainly encouraging, but being conscious of an issue and approaching it appropriately are two different things entirely. Although L&D programmes are changing, our research also revealed a worrying disconnect between how L&D practitioners are adapting their programmes and what their trainees are actually looking to get out of L&D, particularly in terms of training delivery.

Real-world practice

Although L&D professionals and employees largely agree that soft skills need to be cultivated within the workforce to meet the skills gap, there was one key issue of contention – opportunities for real-world practice. This was high on the agenda for employees, but the least common adaptation that L&D has been making to its programmes.

This may sound like a small issue, but if workforces are going to develop their softer skills they’ll need to have these opportunities to practice them, particularly as we’ve yet to address the elephant in the room – Covid-19.

The end of the office?

Everything is, admittedly, still uncertain, but it is clear from the events of the past year that the world of work will not be the same.

Employees have proven by now that they’re trustworthy and professional enough to perform their duties whilst working remotely, and if comments from Barclays and actions from Twitter are anything to go by, workforces will be spending a lot less time in the office in future.

Although the increased development of soft skills within businesses remains the ultimate goal, the playing field has changed dramatically in only a few short months.

This presents several obstacles for L&D facing up to the reskilling challenge. As we’ve all discovered, working remotely is not synonymous with transposing the office ‘9-5’ working pattern into the home. As the lines between work and home have blurred, our approach to the working day has become more flexible, particularly as a large portion of the workforce have now had the experience of home-schooling their children. Many of us have been logging on later in the day, and working later into the evening, swapping shifts with our partners to tend to the needs of our children.

Even now that children have returned to school (and perhaps especially during the summer holidays), some may still wish to work this way, and I believe that the stage has been set for a truly flexible mode of work to become the norm. If this is indeed the case, L&D will need to offer training that can not only reach all these people remotely, but also work around their individual and potentially radically different schedules.

To their credit, over half (57%) of the L&D practitioners we surveyed have adapted their programmes to be available to more individuals, which addresses the dispersed workforce issue and the asynchronous delivery of materials. The wrinkle again, however, is real-world practice which in the case of the desirable soft skills we’re looking to develop, will require ever greater reliance on collaboration tools that emulate the interpersonal conversations which form a significant part of how we learn.

Digital soft skills

With digital communication in mind, there is also the matter of how soft skills translate into an increasingly digital medium. Any skilled presenter will talk about ‘reading the room’, but with the digital divide, these classic soft skills do not necessarily stay relevant.

Gartner is predicting that by 2024 in-person meetings will account for just 25% of enterprise meetings, a drop from 60% before the pandemic. If in-person meetings become a rarity, and digital communication the norm, businesses will need to ensure staff have the skills to not only give presentations and successful communications in real-life, but also how to manage them in a virtual context.

If we think about this from a business leadership angle, where clear, concise communication is of utmost importance, trainers will need to teach leadership teams how to foster communication with people individually and at the collective level through digital channels. Businesses without a clear purpose that is clearly communicated by leadership are ones that are likely to underperform.

Rethinking L&D

Although the increased development of soft skills within businesses remains the ultimate goal, the playing field has changed dramatically in the past 15 months or so. This will be a challenge for L&D. How we teach these skills to a dispersed workforce is a problem that’s largely already been solved, but enabling the vital opportunities for practice and collaboration with colleagues when schedules are becoming flexible, and reframing soft skills in light of increased reliance on digital communication channels will require a serious rethink of L&D programmes.

If L&D is to achieve this, they will have to go back to the drawing board. A good first step will be discussing this with the employees themselves and ensuring there is no disconnect between what is on offer and what’s expected. They will also need to ensure they are working in a close partnership with their online learning platform provider. Learning technology will play a major part here, and L&D practitioners will need to rely on their technology partners to provide them with the knowledge to utilise the technology to its fullest to meet these new learning needs.

Interested in this topic? Read Virtual training: three lessons from the lockdown experience.

Author Profile Picture
Alan Hiddleston

Director Corporate Learning,

Read more from Alan Hiddleston

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