Over the last decade or so, soft skills have moved from the periphery of a business leaders’ recruitment strategy to sit firmly at its center.
So important have soft skills become that they’re now being referred to as “core skills” by some, and are becoming increasingly more valuable as some of the few skills that machines and robots cannot perform.
In the current remote working situation, and the Nearshore’s naturally remote workplace, soft skills grease the wheels of efficiency. Without the ability to collaborate, problem-solve and manage stress, Nearshore teams aren’t getting far.
Professionals in the IT sector have often been accused of lacking these more personal and human skills. In 2018, West Monroe Group, a Chicago-based business and tech consulting firm that works across the US, published a study that found “98 percent of HR leaders said soft skills are important in landing a technology position – so important that 67 percent say they have withheld a job offer from an otherwise qualified technical candidate solely because they lacked soft skills.”
The Group’s suggestion that tech workers do indeed lack essential soft skills rings true in the Nearshore market, say business leaders.
“It’s definitely not a cliche,” Armando Ortigosa, founder and CEO of KTBO, a full stack digital agency that works out of Mexico City and Sao Paulo and whose clients include Kellog’s, EA and The Coca-Cola Company, told Nearshore Americas recently. “It’s one of the greatest challenges in my line of business. We have a lot of people who simply lack a lot of soft skills that are needed when dealing with offshore and Nearshore clients.”
A Nearshore Necessity
Technology’s environment of innovation and agile can really expose a lack of soft skills in tech workers. The need to work closely but remotely means that every team member must possess an arsenal of interpersonal skills to function without friction.
What complicates any soft skills discussion in the Nearshore is that work is carried out across distinct cultures. The approach to human relations that is common in the US may not translate to the workplace in Bogotá. Companies who across The Americas, or work out of Latin America for US clients, must therefore find a solid middle-ground where teams or client-provider relationships run smoothly.
Giving and Receiving Feedback
The need to give and receive feedback was a skill highlighted by each of our interviewees.
Adam Fenton, co-founder and CTO at Nolte, a web and mobile product development agency in Mexico City, told Nearshore Americas that the emotional toll of giving and receiving feedback in Mexico was distinct from his native United Kingdom.
“I’ve found that people are less forthcoming in giving direct feedback, and less receptive to receiving it,” he said. “Feedback can be taken personally, which isn’t how it’s intended. As a company, avoiding feedback wouldn’t work and this has definitely been a common issue.”
Armando Ortigosa, believes that Nearshore tech workers with less exposure to the demands and communication styles of US clients often take what is meant to be constructive as criticism. There’s a cultural element in play, in which engaging in “small talk” establishes the possibility of giving feedback in an open environment, he says.
“If you don’t follow the necessary steps for those lines of communication to be followed and then give feedback or instruction, people can internalize that feedback negatively. Being overly direct can backfire in Latin America,” he explained.
But only by discussing how problems could have been solved earlier, or development processes can be improved for future work, can teams become stronger and learn from errors, says Fenton. Changing his approach to giving feedback has helped matters, and team members have learned that this soft skill is a vital part of work.
“That means there’s been work on my end to help people understand that feedback is intended as a tool for help, not a personal critique. I had to adapt myself,” he said.
Remote agile development isn’t easy. With cross-functional teams working in sync there can be crossed wires and time can be wasted on non-value adding or even repeated tasks. This is where critical thinking comes in. Often, tech workers need to take a step back from coding and question whether their time is being spent appropriately, said our business leaders.
For Maria De Buen, CEO at BluePixel, a UX company from Mexico City, the tripling of BluePixel’s workforce saw the need to think critically highlighted within her team. The company has recently hired more senior developers to address this particular issue.
“We’ve experienced fast growth and have taken on lots of projects over the last 18 months. The entire team has been making a real effort to get everything out on time. But when delays did happen, we saw that there was a lack of responsibility being taken, or accountability accepted,” she said.
This is a familiar situation for Fenton. Critical thinking is about questioning – from the position of knowledge – a problem posed.
“I tell my team that before they ask how to solve the problem, they should be asking whether it’s the right problem to be solving. That’s the crux of it,” he said. “What we often find is that people want to do what the client tells them to do. But the client is not the expert. They know a lot about their own product but, normally, not much about the technology. They’re looking to us to provide that expertise.”
Communication and Proactivity
The most frequently highlighted soft skill in the digital work sphere is communication. Indeed, West Monroe Group’s study found that “verbal communication and collaboration” was ranked as the most important soft skill by HR teams. Communication is fundamental to the working of any good team, Nearshore or not. Without clear and open lines of communication between team members and lines of management, the direction can be lost and work suffers. It’s vital for Nearshore tech workers to possess this soft skill, and it helps foster a strong team culture at work.
It’s important to us that every time someone learns something new they share it, but because of this lack of communication a lot knowledge was being lost — Maria De Buen
“We found many some team members were very good technically but didn’t have the ability to share that knowledge,” said De Buen. “It’s important to us that every time someone learns something new they share it, but because of this lack of communication a lot knowledge was being lost.”
Clear communication requires confidence and the understanding that each team member is expected to use their knowledge. However, the more traditional structure of Mexican businesses can inhibit proactivity in employees, Fenton believes. “It can take a while to build up the confidence to stand up in front of a boss or a client, but it’s important to make sure we’re moving in the right direction.”
A more dynamic and communicative approach could benefit Mexico’s tech industry as a whole Mexico, he says.
“We expect proactiveness; this is what I find a lot of people need a lot of coaching in. In the tech industry in other regions, that approach is expected from the beginning and new recruits learn the process more quickly. Responsibility is given early; people will come to an employee and ask their advice and opinion. Communication is essential,” said Fenton.