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Covid-19: why have soft skills become essential for companies?

Pierre-Yves Sanseau Copy Jayet - Les soft skills, clé de voûte des entreprises en contexte critique ?
Published on
12 January 2021

Creativity, empathy, cooperation, autonomy… These are the foundations of soft skills that are essential to overcome challenges in agility. Why have these skills become so important for companies to survive the Covid-19 crisis?

We spoke with Pierre-Yves Sanséau, a researcher and professor of HR management at Grenoble Ecole de Management.

The Covid-19 crisis is an opportunity to shine the spotlight on soft skills. How do you define these skills?

Soft skills combine social skills and know-how in terms of relationships. They include behavioral, social and communication skills such as listening, connecting with others and problem-solving. All of these social and human skills are characterised by their use of creativity, empathy, cooperation and autonomy in the workplace.

Why has France in particular ignored soft skills for such a long time?

Initially identified in North America, the concept of soft skills came to France in the 90s. Hard skills were the traditional focus in France with a set of objective skills based on three factors: technical skills, work experience and level of education. This left little room for more subjective skills in a country that is known for its cartesian and academic spirit as well as its pyramidal and centralized state organization. Up until this crisis, soft skills were slow to be integrated in the French professional and education culture.

How did the first lockdown enable soft skills to stand out?

The Covid-19 crisis created an opportunity and requirement to apply soft skills in business. The workplace context was completely disrupted and changed constantly. And an employee's ability to use a skill is highly dependent on the workplace context.

The lockdown changed our perspectives. Employees had to mobilize resources in order to cooperate and continue working in this difficult situation. They notably had to call upon their skills with empathy, autonomy and responsibility. They were able to show interest in what others were living as well as concern for the longevity of their company. Employees also expressed critical thinking and criticisms in the face of the unclear and chaotic decisions that were announced.

As a result, the crisis shined a spotlight on skills that individuals already had but that were not recognized within companies. Many employees were surprised by changes in management that lead to delegated skills and responsibilities for collaboration.

Do you believe this change is temporary or will it lead to a long-term evolution?

This question is still up for grabs. On one side, France has a history of vertical, centralized management that is highly controlled. On the other side, employees are not very autonomous or responsible. The issue will be whether or not employees will still need this type of management.

I believe that companies will need employees who know how to use soft skills if they wish to continue moving forward in the post-covid-19 era. Creativity and flexibility will be essential as will qualities tied to cooperation. Much like the Spanish flu, the Covid-19 crisis will mark our spirits and foster critical thinking that will change our century.

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