The workplace is changing, and so are the must-have skills required to succeed in it. When hiring, companies still prize technical prowess and specific work experience, but soft skills increasingly share in the workplace limelight.

Recent Robert Half research underscores this shift, revealing that 14 per cent of managers attribute their hiring missteps to an overemphasis on technical capabilities. It’s not hard to see how these bad hires happen. Managers look mainly at what a candidate can do — their hard skills and experience — more than how they do it. As a result, managers may skate over an individual’s interpersonal abilities and communication style. Yet soft skills like these now play a growing role in whether a new hire will succeed or fail, and they are likely to become a hallmark of the workplace of the future.

Why soft skills matter

As digital technology continues to reshape how businesses operate, hard skills — aka technical skills — are increasingly handled by automation, AI and other developments. This is boosting the importance of soft skills, which only humans possess. Professionals whose soft skills help them adapt to these shifts with innovative thinking and creative problem-solving are best equipped to succeed.

Soft skills also help employees navigate the virtual workplace. Professionals highly value the ability to work from home at least part of the time. Excellent communication is the backbone of productive hybrid and remote work setups, whether that means understanding email etiquette, being a pro on phone calls, shining in video meetings or being masters of time management.

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Identifying soft skills when hiring

When you’re reviewing resumes or conducting interviews, it’s the hard skills that are most easily evaluated. Soft skills are trickier to pin down, which is likely why they’ve been overshadowed in the past.

Appreciating the game-changing role of soft skills is a fundamental first step, but real success depends on how you revamp your hiring process to really focus on these attributes. Here are a few tips.

1. Figure out the top soft skills for each position

The beauty of soft skills is that they’re often transferrable. In the job posting, identify and underscore the top two or three soft skills for the position you’re looking to staff. Be as clear as you can to help candidates know exactly what you’re looking for. As a basic example, if you’re hiring for a receptionist position, instead of vaguely asking for “strong social skills,” specify the ability to “foster a warm and welcoming environment for visitors.”

2. Review the requirements for hard skills

Plenty of jobs need relevant qualifications, but not all. Consider loosening up on requirements that aren’t deal breakers so more candidates feel empowered to apply. For example, instead of a hard and fast “bachelor’s degree required,” consider a more flexible “bachelor’s degree preferred.” This way, you’re opening the door to candidates who might have lacked the educational opportunities enjoyed by their peers but have the right blend of soft skills to shine in the role.

3. Ask interview questions to test soft skills

It can be tricky to tease out soft skills during an interview. If you ask a candidate whether they’re a model team player or a fluent communicator, they’ll just tell you what they think you want to hear. To dig deeper, throw open-ended and hypothetical questions into the mix. You’ll get a better sense of how they tackle challenges and solve problems. For example:

  • For teamwork: “Your team has made a decision, and you’re the only one who disagrees. What’s your game plan?”
  • For adaptability and problem-solving: “You’re in the middle of a project, and suddenly the goals shift drastically. How would you deal with the situation?”
  • For leadership skills: “If you noticed a decline in employee morale, what would you do to improve things?”

4. Look for nonverbal clues

Beyond what they’re saying, how a candidate behaves during the interview can also provide you with insights into their soft skills.

  • Communication: A candidate who frequently interrupts you while you’re talking may not be a good listener. On the other hand, one who keeps talking and who you must interrupt could be problematic if the role calls for a lot of teamwork.
  • Demeanor: Do they speak clearly while looking you in the eye? Someone who doesn’t maintain eye contact may not excel in face-to-face sales, but they may have the patience and empathy to be the best IT help desk technician you ever hired. Are they fidgeting or squirming? While some nerves are expected, a clearly anxious candidate is likely to struggle with public speaking if that’s what the role involves.
  • Organization: A candidate who responds thoughtfully to questions, taking the time to answer in a logical, point-by-point manner, is likely to be well organized on the job, too.

Attracting workers with excellent soft skills is one thing; keeping them is another. Top performers will not tolerate poor interpersonal skills from colleagues and company leaders for long. Pay attention to the way you relate to staff. The best workers are far more likely to stay with a company whose managers understand the importance of offering recognition for good performance, serving as mentors, facilitating a healthy work-life balance for their team members and in other ways treating their people with respect.

The workplace is at a crossroads, with technology taking over mundane tasks and allowing employees to focus on areas where human beings shine — customer care, empathetic leadership, creative problem solving and more. As this trend continues, the importance of hiring for soft skills will only grow. Champion the human qualities within your workforce — they may just be the secret to your competitive advantage.