The importance of human skills in a tech era cannot be understated. While the modern workplace is celebrated for its adoption of various technologies and the use of technically-gifted employees, the ability of workers to relate to each other and apply their soft skills to their job brings balance to the office. Human skills are soft skills like interpersonal communication and leadership, whereas job or hard skills are the technical capabilities built up from years of study and experience in a particular profession. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, it changed how every company worldwide operated. According to the e-Conomy SEA Report 2020 by Google, Temasek, and Bain & Company, the pandemic brought a permanent and massive digital adoption spurt to Southeast Asia. There were changes to every industry, including the travel and hospitality sectors, banking, eCommerce, Logistics, and others.

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Businesses are now very tech-oriented. The deployment of digital tools in marketing, public relations, data entry, analytics, customer service, payments, human resources, and online booking is commonplace. Moreover, technology is creating new jobs with the rise of sectors such as robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning (ML). With the changing of legacy or traditional systems to go digital, there is always the question of what is more important: job skills or human skills? 

Enduring workplace human skills and their impact

While measuring or reviewing job skills is easier, human skills are more complex and vary from person to person. Nevertheless, the ability to relate to each other remains critical. It prevents isolation, enhances collaboration, marries human and job skills to create a balanced approach, and helps workers to adapt to the spread of automation technologies, which are changing the employment landscape. Novel and innovative technologies are taking over jobs requiring little human input.

According to a McKinsey Global Institute study, widespread automation will lead to job displacements, replacing repetitive, manual, and basic cognitive tasks. Thus, companies must reskill their workers to help them transition into other jobs that technology cannot easily displace. The skills that will survive will be irreplaceable, such as interpersonal, problem-solving, cognitive, and advanced IT skills.

Other skills needed include leadership, critical thinking, collaboration, adaptability, decision-making, communication, time management, empathy, friendliness, and customer service. These skills show a focus on our human nature, unity with fellow employees, and focus on customers. Businesses cannot thrive without the human element, so it is vital to reskill workers for future work.

Another McKinsey study found that companies began focusing on a different set of skills: social and emotional, and advanced cognitive skills. Between 71% and 90% of the survey respondents said that their skill changes positively impacted their companies. Employee performance and satisfaction went up, the employer’s reputation increased, and the businesses were more able to meet their goals.

The introduction of remote and hybrid work also created new challenges for the workplace. Companies and their employees had to adapt to using tech. Others found that they did not have adequate equipment, productivity plummeted, and new cybersecurity threats emerged. Over time, as people became more comfortable with the global digital transformation, there was a tendency to over-rely on technology instead of trusting their human abilities more.

Even though technology brings benefits like automation, efficiency, productivity, error identification and correction, and more, there is a risk that workers may become dependent on it. Tech should be used as a tool to aid work rather than letting tech do the work. McKinsey notes that reskilling workers can bring human and work skills together by enabling employees to focus on high-value work, automate repetitive tasks, earn more, and become more productive.

Navigating the modern workplace

As the digital age makes its mark, workers must be willing to evolve into new roles, learn new job skills, and retain the focus on helping customers. Companies face the challenge of reskilling workers because of cost, the unwillingness of workers to change, and the traumatic experience of job displacement.

Thus, businesses should analyse skill gaps, anticipate them and reskill accordingly, and hire talent capable of working in ‘futuristic jobs’. Moreover, they should create organisational structures for learning, tailor training for each employee, deploy a multi-varied approach to learning, and design programs that do not need altering in just a few weeks.

As Southeast Asia’s digital economy looks to pass the USD 300 billion mark by 2026, it is clear that the technological transformation of the region will continue to raise new challenges. The modern workplace should embrace human skills in a tech era and focus on cultivating more worker participation, soft skills, and engagement in solving emerging business problems. The onus will also be on employees to adapt if they hope to successfully navigate the future of work.