There is no doubt that the workplace was profoundly changed by the COVID-19 pandemic. We learnt how to master the unmute button and other new digital tools. Some of us got more philosophical, embracing work-life-balance as quiet quitters.
The pandemic changed not only how we work, but what many of us want from work. But did it also change what employers want from us?
To answer this question, we studied more than 12 million online job ads provided by Adzuna Australia. We analysed trends and changes in the kinds of skills Australian employers are looking for.
Our results, published in Nature Human Behaviour, reveal that soft skills are in hard demand in the post pandemic Aussie job market.
Interpersonal skills as the currency of career success
Demand for interpersonal skills, which encompass our ability to communicate and interact well with other people, was rising steadily long before the pandemic.
One driver of this was the continued expansion of the services sector. Australia’s largest employer is the healthcare and social assistance industry, and its employment share continues to grow. Within this sector, working well with people is fundamental to the job.
But there’s more to this trend than just an increase in the number of services workers. Our research has also observed demand for people skills has been increasing over time within different job types.
To explain the trend, researchers have cited the growing importance of team-based activities in modern workplaces. Others suggest as some tasks are automated, human skills like empathy and patience are complementary to the advanced technical abilities offered by new technology.
COVID-19 and the remote work revolution
The widespread shift to remote work during the pandemic endured well beyond the last lockdown. A recent survey by the University of Sydney estimated that workers spent 21 per cent of their work hours working remotely in September 2023. Before the pandemic, it was just five per cent.
Of course, not everyone can work from home. The shift to remote work has been greatest for workers in managerial, professional and clerical occupations, who can easily do so.
While this shift has brought productivity and flexibility benefits, it has also changed the way workers communicate and collaborate. Studies have shown that working remotely reduces the level of interaction between coworkers. Research has also shown that organisation-wide adoption of remote work in the initial months of the pandemic led to the thinning out of collaboration networks, raising concerns about the longer-term impact of remote work on innovation.
So what skills are required to stand out to employers in this increasingly remote, post-pandemic job market? And did the ever-growing focus on interpersonal skills drop off alongside the shift away from the office? We turned to the data to find out.
Post-pandemic skills demand
We mined the text of over 12 million online Australian job ads posted between 2015 and 2022, capturing the skills they called for. Using this vast amount of data, we measured employers’ demand for different sets of skills before, and after the onset of the pandemic.
Contrary to expectations, demand for interpersonal skills did not just continue to grow, but surged following the pandemic. What’s more, this acceleration was greatest in occupations with higher rates of remote working. This included personal assistants and secretaries, legal professionals, business professionals and general managers. Sharp increases in demand for skills in presenting information, consulting, obtaining information verbally and networking drove much of the surge in demand.
Job postings from 2022 offering remote work arrangements were 1.2 times more likely to seek interpersonal skills than equivalent job postings not offering these arrangements.
What’s more, this accelerated demand occurred despite the unemployment rate decreasing to a historic low of 3.5 per cent in the post-pandemic period. You may have heard this period referred to as a ‘job seekers market’. Historically, tight labour markets increase competition for talent, forcing employers to be less picky. Our analysis shows that interpersonal skills bucked this trend, further highlighting their rising importance in the workplace.
Working from home is not working alone
The data tells us the increased use of digital channels at work has only served to reinforce the importance of interpersonal skills. Employers with remote workforces increasingly seek workers with strong skills in communicating and collaborating, perhaps to overcome the barriers that remote work imposes on traditional teamwork processes and maintain strong team performance.
Our findings suggest that working from home is not working alone. Rather than working in a more isolated manner, remote teams continue to stay connected and work together. It also suggests that over the longer run remote work may not have led to the thinning out of collaboration networks and reductions in innovation that were initially feared.
How to sell yourself in the remote job market
If you’re an applicant with your eye on a flexible role, consider developing and showcasing your interpersonal skills as part of your application and interview. Our research suggests that, now more than ever, employers are on the hunt for applicants with strong soft skills.
There are also lessons in the data for education and training providers. Growth in demand for interpersonal skills in the pre-pandemic period led to recommendations that education systems should have a greater focus on developing these skills to better prepare individuals for real workplaces.
Our findings show that these recommendations continue to be relevant in Australia’s post-pandemic labour market, despite the widespread shift to remote working.