3 mins

As AI encroaches further into the workplace, is emotional intelligence a more important skill than ever? Two new surveys show a surprising number of tech workers and employers think it might be.

As developers find more and more ways to deploy generative AI tools to perform simple programming tasks, some may be seeing soft skills as a safer route towards job security than before.

A recent survey of 16,000 tech workers by Udemy showed interest in active listening training courses grew by 52% over the last three months on the platform, customer service by 51%, and developing work-life balance skills by 42%. The data supports similar surveys which suggest that skills like teamwork, collaboration, and problem solving will be more important than ever in the modern workplace.

What has changed?

Keeping the human touch

Charlie Cox, commercial director of SThree, a talent specialist that regularly recruits software engineers and developers, sees the desire to enhance so-called soft skills, like active listening and talking to customers, as a direct response to the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and hybrid work revolution

“In the realms of engineering and software development, there’s a growing realization that the touch of humanity in technology’s creation and deployment is irreplaceable,” he says. “It underlines a shift towards valuing emotional intelligence (EQ) more than ever before, recognizing it as crucial for innovation, effective teamwork, and user-focused design in tech ventures.”

Although many believe that we’re still a way off from generative AI outright replacing human developers, there are fears that the rise of AI tools could hollow out expertise. To try and counter that, universities are already changing how they teach the next wave of computer science graduates.

“AI is coming in, so people think their jobs are going to be replaced,” says Cary Cooper, professor of organizational psychology at the University of Manchester’s business school. “People are thinking: ‘Let me learn skills that AI can’t copy from us’. It’s going to be a long time before AI has EQ, if it can ever happen.”

By bolstering these soft skills, “tech professionals aren’t just safeguarding their roles; they’re enhancing their indispensability within their teams and organizations,” Cox adds.

The changing face of work

Fear of an AI renaissance is only part of the reason workers may be looking to sharpen their soft skills. The lingering aftermath of the pandemic, and how it changed the way we work, is also accountable for the shift. 

“In settings where in-person interactions dwindle, the capacity to listen, connect, and maintain a healthy work-life balance is essential for nurturing trust, fostering effective teamwork, and guaranteeing project success across any distance,” says Cox.

For years, employers favored technical skills and IQ, rather than EQ, when choosing which developers to hire and promote. That has resulted in a managerial class that is often not best suited to handling the needs of their staff, particularly in a hybrid work environment where staff are not always present in the office.

As a result, executives are keen to try and ensure they don’t repeat the same mistake, and are putting far more importance on EQ skills. “I fear that we still have people being promoted, who basically are technically competent,” says Cooper. “But that’s it. They’re not just good at the people skills.”

Recessionary pressures

Broader economic concerns may also be behind the sudden drive to reskill. “We’re in a recession,” Cooper says. “That means that jobs will go. And maybe number one, if I want to maintain my job and I’m in a management role, or have the skills that people feel would mean I’d be really a good manager, I need to get that training.” 

Competition is also rising in the face of the layoffs afflicting the industry and workers are clearly thinking more about what skills will keep them employable, and it’s not necessarily learning how to code.