Plenty has been said and written recently about the importance of so-called soft skills in the workplace. Earlier this year a report by the Development Economics research group estimated that they are worth £88bn annually to the UK economy – a figure that could rise to £127 billion by 2025.
A coalition of major businesses, including National Grid and publishing firm Pearson, is calling for the creation of a formal soft skills ‘framework’ and wants to see a greater emphasis on soft skills in the school curriculum.
Entrepreneur and former Dragons’ Den star James Caan said in July that soft skills are “vital”, adding:
Economic conditions mean today’s business environment is more competitive than ever, and we need people with the right skills to stay ahead of the widening productivity gap.
So what exactly are soft skills, and why should contractors care about them?
Finance site Investopedia uses the following definition:
The character traits and interpersonal skills that characterise a person’s relationships with other people. In the workplace, soft skills are considered a complement to hard skills, which refer to a person’s knowledge and occupational skills. Sociologists may use the term soft skills to describe a person’s ‘EQ’ or Emotional Intelligence Quotient (as opposed to ‘IQ’).
Put simply, then, the term seems to refer to those qualities that can’t be defined, tested or quantified. Unlike a qualification or accreditation, they aren’t black and white. This doesn’t mean, however, that soft skills should be ignored.
Here are nine that we think every contractor and freelancer needs to succeed:
Let’s face it, starting a new assignment every few weeks or months and having to get to know a new group of co-workers isn’t for the shy or reserved. Being confident around others is vital if you are to hit the ground running and deliver that vital project on time and to your client’s satisfaction.
As a contractor you’re by definition independent. Indeed, freedom from office politics may have been one of the main attractions of the freelance lifestyle in the first place. That doesn’t mean, however, that you no longer have to worry about working well with other people. On the contrary, your ability to operate as part of team – whether it’s with your permanent counterparts at your temporary workplace or with fellow freelancers – could make or break your assignment. After all, no man (or woman) is an island.
Whether it’s missing out on an assignment or receiving negative feedback from a client, setbacks are an inevitable part of life as a contractor. What matters is how you respond to those blows and learn from them.
Never forget that the organisation you’re working with is paying a premium for your services. Beyond proficiency in the technical aspects of your assignment, the people that are engaging you will want to see that you enjoy what you do. Enthusiasm is infectious, so approaching your assignment with vigour every day will quickly pay dividends – even if it’s difficult on a rainy Monday morning!
The most successful and highly-rewarded contractors always look to challenge ingrained ways of working. Indeed, it’s this original thinking that will set you apart from your permanent counterparts and help to justify your price tag. Always look for opportunities to do things differently. Be bold and radical.
Recruiters and their clients know that a contractor who is willing to change their plans at short notice is like gold-dust. Things change quickly in business, so if you’re willing to put work ahead of your personal plans from time to time it will hold you in good stead. Increased flexibility is one of the perks of contracting, but remember that it works both ways. Show that you’re not rigid and you’ll be more likely to land the next plum assignment that comes up.
Hiccups, issues, niggles, teething problems, challenges. However you choose to describe them, it’s inevitable that they will crop up during the course of your assignment. It could be something technical, or an interpersonal issue. It may be a bit of a cliché, but the old adage that problems should be seen as opportunities still has value for freelancers.
From your tax and financial affairs to completing your current assignment and keeping one eye on future work, it’s vital that you are able to prioritise and manage your workload.
People buy from and hire people, so making an effort to be affable and pleasant during your assignment – no matter how busy you are – will go a long way to making a good impression.