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Companies step out of office to teach soft skills

  • Long hours in conference rooms for skill-building sessions are a thing of the past
  • Now the corporate world is looking to theatre workshops, role play and gamification to impart training to employees

A number of companies use informal and interactive methods like plays to address and highlight behaviour of employees. iStockphoto
A number of companies use informal and interactive methods like plays to address and highlight behaviour of employees. iStockphoto

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Gone are the days when a job application would only look at the projects you managed and the sales you made. More companies are evaluating employees personalities, too, to ensure that their next hire fits in with the company culture.

Soft skills, behavioural skills, essential skills... call them what you will, but employers can no longer ignore it and are proactively training their employees to be better at the way they interact with peer and teams as well as clients.

“Behavioural training is important and includes everything from how you react and take in to the feedback you get to the impact you have on clients and customers. It is important for us to understand what areas employees need to work on or what behaviour needs to be improved or modified,” says Yogi Sriram, senior vice-president, corporate HR, Larsen & Toubro Ltd.

Sriram believes that there should be a framework for linking behaviour to appraisals and rewards. The feedback needs to be personalized and real time, so that the recall can be immediate.

But these need not be only through recognized and traditional methods such as classroom training and online courses. Some might have the traditional methods, others may have more uncommon ways to teach, and some may use a mix of both.

Focusing on key areas

The reasons for each organization to have soft skills training can be different, but it is good to recognize areas that need work. For example, Eli Lilly’s focus on diversity and inclusion was extended to soft skill trainings.

The pharma company has several scenario-based programmes which make participants aware of preconceived notions, hidden biases and micro-aggressions. These can include phrases like “oh, he got the role because he is a man”, or “she got a promotion because she is in that team”. Participants are each given a scenario and asked to understand which reactions are acceptable.

“The idea is to make our employees feel safe and thrive at Eli Lilly. When I say ‘safety’ I also mean psychological safety. We need to be aware about the things that can make someone uncomfortable, unwelcome or even unsafe at work and see how we can change it,” says Anant Garg, HR director, Eli Lilly.

Scenario-based learning is also being used by the JSW group. Instead of a traditional computer-based training for prevention of sexual harassment (POSH), the company organized a play through which employees were taught about sexual harassment at the workplace. In the blended learning model that JSW uses, managers also share their experiences and start a discussion.

“We have had POSH training earlier, but this time, it created buzz and more people wanted to participate. Another thing we noticed was how it was possible to retain their attention for four to five hours. These interactive sessions are combined with classroom training for the basic theory,” explains Gautam Chainani, group president, JSW.

Chainani explains how interactive methods bring out unconscious biases. During one such session a lot of senior male employees showed paternal instincts towards women. “They would say things like, let’s not give her that role, because it requires a lot of field work in not-so-safe areas, or it requires working alone at night, things like that. While it comes from a good place, it is a bias. Employees, especially millennial employees would not agree to such behaviour,” he explains.

Reading patterns

Information technology and outsourcing company Mindtree, however, sticks to its roots. Since technology is its stronghold, it uses the digital medium for what it calls “non-technical” learning.

A simulation game works to show how an employee’s (in this case, the gamer) behaviour influences stakeholders by allowing them to make decisions and understand the persona of the stakeholder.

“Gamification of learning has two plus points—one, you can scale it quickly. Two, digital learning gives you access to analytics and lets you read patterns, which can then be used to understand its effectiveness. What we used to consider soft skills earlier, such as effective communication, have become hygiene now. To stand apart from the rest, you need much more than just that,” says Deepa Krishna, associate director-learning and development at Mindtree.

Reviewing impact

A common complaint is that while employees attend workshops and classes, they may not actually implement these brushed-up skills in the workplace. Reviewing therefore becomes important for companies to understand the effectiveness of such measures.

“Sometimes an employee may already have that skill, but is not using it effectively. To develop talent, it is important not just to train them on skills, but also understand what makes them better as team contributors,” says Prince Augustin, EVP-group human capital and leadership development, M&M.

“If they can’t recognize the skills they need to build, it is the manager’s responsibility to point these out and encourage them to work on it,” explains Augustin.

This is the thought behind the bi-annual relationship reviews at M&M where teams come together to understand the hurdles they are facing in effective collaboration.

Augustin further adds that solutions have to be hyper personalized – what works for one team or individual may not work for another. “There is no one way of developing. Organizations usually focus on developing the left brain, which is what businesses need. But individuals must take up creative paths to develop their right brain simultaneously – be it through theatre, photography, music or other activities,” says Augustin.

clear communication

Max Life Insurance also has anonymous surveys for employees, where they comment on the company culture, how good is networking, how is it working with the peers etc. This can help HR teams to get a pulse of things and work on encouraging soft skill learning at work. During off-sites as well, employees are encouraged to take part in role-plays. This helps them to communicate without barriers, and they generally are seen to drop their guard—even if they are talking to supervisors. The informal format helps not only to grab attention, but also makes it more engaging and effective.

Shailesh Singh, director and chief people officer at Max Life Insurance says any plan for the company has to take into account its people. “In any organization, for success, the model must have people at the core. This is why we insist that supervisors get in touch with the team and see where development is going year on year. The development plan for key talent is shared with the CEO, who then shares it with the board. Ultimately, the plan to develop lies with you,” explains Singh.

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