Why soft skills make good business sense

It has been claimed that so-called soft skills are worth £88 billion a year to UK businesses. And yet, research shows that these skills are still hugely undervalued by employers and that there is a lack of investment in ensuring that employees have or gain them. Andrea Broughton, Principal Research Officer  at the Institute for Employment Studies examines the evidence.

Photo credit: UC Davis College of Engineering

There certainly seems to be a growing consensus that so-called soft skills are increasingly essential for employees in today’s workplaces, particularly in those that rely on face-to-face human interaction, which arguably includes the vast majority of organisations.

Soft skills include communication, listening, negotiating, team working, and interaction with customers and colleagues. Employers do recognise that these skills are important, and worry if they feel that their employees lack them.

However, these types of skills are difficult to categorise and, in the absence of hard, measurable data, a link to the bottom line can be difficult to make. It is certainly questionable whether a precise figure can be placed on the value of soft skills to the UK economy as a whole.

However, it true that a good manager will possess soft skills in abundance: good communication and listening skills are essential in motiving a team, and if employees are motivated, they will be happier, more productive and less likely to switch employer.

Negotiation, listening and communication skills are also vital in defusing potentially difficult situations at work and thus ensuring a stable workforce that is better able to perform to a high standard.

Team working is a key element of workplace interaction, the idea being that if employees can work well together, pulling towards the same goal, they will be more productive and innovative, and achieve more than individuals ploughing their own furrow.

Not to mention the importance of sending clients away happy: if people have a bad experience following an interaction with an employee, they are likely to take their business elsewhere the next time.

Lack of formal training

It would seem that one of the problems is that there is little formal training in these types of soft skills.

In contrast to academic or technical skills, there is no universally recognised qualification in listening or communication skills that individuals can acquire. This lack of formal training is based partly on a belief that soft skills rely on common sense and can be learnt on the job.

However, not everyone is a natural communicator and many individuals have to work hard to develop good listening and empathy skills.

The training that does take place usually happens under the guise of something else. For example, one of the most valuable results of Acas’s training programme for workplace mediators has been the fact that those who had attended the training came away with enhanced soft skills in areas around listening, communicating and behavioural awareness.

Trainees said that this not only helped them in their role as a workplace mediator, but also much more widely in their job role, and they were also able to deal more effectively with interactions in a non-work situation[1].

Similar results emerged from training for workplace health and safety representatives carried out by the Health and Safety Executive, where the emphasis was on negotiating and listening skills[2].

The way forward

So, how to move soft skills up the training agenda? There is no shortage of potential training providers in this area, so the real challenge is to persuade employers that this is something worthwhile on which to spend money.

Employers need to be convinced that this needs to be a focus of training policy rather than something left to chance, in the hope that those who don’t have these skills will somehow muddle through, or acquire them on the job.

A forum in which engaged employers discuss these issues with policymakers would be a positive step.

These skills are clearly important and will become ever more so, given the changing nature of work: think, for example of the number of call centre workers, or those working in the leisure industry – jobs that rely on good interpersonal skills. These jobs have replaced more traditional manufacturing jobs, in which soft skills were not such a core competence.

Once there is recognition that soft skills have a real value to the economy, it will be easier to organise training around these skills, possibly even leading to some form of recognisable qualification in, for example, managing customer interactions, or working in a team.

This would then help employers to build these skills in a meaningful way into job descriptions, appraisals and promotion criteria. Emphasising the business case to employers will be essential: these skills are not just nice to have – they are a must-have in today’s working environment and in many cases at least as important as academic and technical skills.

Further information

[1] An evaluation of the impact of the internal workplace mediation training service, Broughton A, Ledermaier S, Cox A, Research Paper 07/14, Acas, May 2014

[2] Broughton A, Wilson S, Newton B (2013). Evaluation of the HSE worker involvement training courses: Final report. Research Report 964, Health and Safety Executive (HSE)