Human skills, or what are commonly known as “soft skills,” have always been essential in the workplace. Human skills refer to a person’s interpersonal skills as well as character traits. They reflect not only how effectively a person works with others, but also how well they work independently. Human skills can range from communication, collaboration and teamwork to empathy, critical thinking, problem solving and time management.

As a project manager, I noticed that, in addition to submitting quality work, what particularly mattered to clients was how promptly we communicated with them, how well we understood the project requirements and whether we had an agile mindset to meet the changing needs of a project. It was also interesting to see that it wasn’t necessarily the team members who were great writers or editors who thrived in the workplace; it was those who were resilient during difficult phases of a project, communicated clearly and promptly and were curious and passionate about their work.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, human skills have become even more critical for businesses and employees. According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report, in the coming years, complex skills such as critical thinking and problem solving and skills in self-management, such as active learning and resilience, will be some of the most crucial skills required in the workplace.

Human skills tend to be more difficult to teach than technical skills as they are more abstract and harder to quantify. And it is even more challenging to teach human skills to a workforce that’s now mostly virtual.

Here are five strategies learning and development (L&D) professionals can use to teach human skills in a virtual environment:

1. Create smaller chunks of training content.

According to a study by Microsoft, the average attention span only lasts about eight seconds in today’s digital world. This means, in order for your learners to grasp the concepts covered in a training session, the content needs to be broken down into small, bite-sized chunks. Even though such a process may be time consuming, for the training to be effective, it is a necessity.

2. Use blended learning tools.

Learners are a mixed bag of individuals, each with a different learning mindset and preference, so when teaching human skills in an online environment, it’s wise to use a variety of learning tools to satisfy a diverse range of learners. Familiarize yourself with an assortment of tested, popular tools — ranging from graphics, videos, and whiteboards to polls, simulations, and learning trackers — that make learning engaging, fun and impactful.

3. Use breakout rooms for shared learning.

One of the best ways to teach human skills is to encourage participants to apply what they’ve learned during the training session by taking part in scenario-based activities. To do this, create breakout rooms with no more than two to three participants so that they are comfortable sharing the space to collaborate and learn from each other.

For example, if you are conducting a session on giving feedback, create a scenario-based activity where one participant plays the role of someone giving feedback and another acts as the receiver. For increased difficulty levels, you could have the receivers act uninterested in or dismissive of the feedback — the participant giving the feedback would need to tailor their approach accordingly.

These real-world scenarios make the content more meaningful and engaging for participants, ensuring a better understanding of the skills.

4. Give assignments that nudge learners to practice what they learned.

Human skills need plenty of practice. This means the participants’ learning process doesn’t end with the training session. To be able to incorporate new skills in their day-to-day life and work, they need to use them regularly. This is what makes post-training assignments and refresher sessions critical.

As an assignment for a training on time management, you could ask participants to incorporate one of the strategies they learned in the session, such as creating a mock daily schedule.

As a post-training assignment for a training session on communicating effectively with peers and stakeholders, you might ask learners to enact a communication-based role play with a family member or a peer and answer questions related to the scenario.

For post-training assignments, learners need periodic support and guidance during their practice periods, so schedule refresher sessions where participants share their learning experiences. You will have a chance to address their questions or the challenges they may have faced during real-life implementation of the tips and techniques recommended during the training, and they will gain clarity.

5. Use real-world examples to make it relevant.

The effectiveness of a training session depends to a great extent on whether the content and supporting examples used are relatable and apply to the work the learners do. More relevant content also means higher engagement levels. For example, when conducting a session on how to handle clients effectively for a team of software engineers, using scenarios from the finance industry could lower learners’ engagement levels because isn’t directly related to the day-to-day work they do. Instead, using examples from a recent software industry project and putting together a case study makes the content more relevant and impactful.

Teaching human skills virtually poses several challenges, ranging from limited sensory immersion to difficulty in maintaining learner engagement to ensuring the training translates into positive behavioral change and development for team members. However, when we consider the positive impact such trainings can have on businesses and team members, they’re worth every bit of the effort.