Friday 30 August 2019 6:01 am

Uber's quiet cabs are sapping our social skills

Matthew Kay is managing director of Vario from Pinsent Masons.

Uber’s recent move to offer passengers a “quiet preferred” option sparked a lively debate online, with some praising the move and others sharing stories of overly chatty drivers disturbing their journeys.

Others bemoaned the change, branding it “dehumanising” for the drivers and “entitled”. 

Whatever side of the fence you sit on, there’s no denying that because of technology there is potential for our soft skills to erode. These skills include  creative thinking, negotiation techniques, the ability to manage emotions, and the capability to spark up a conversation with a stranger.

If you’re reading this on your commute, look up. Chances are that the vast majority of fellow passengers have their noses buried in their phones, most with headphones in too. The scene a coupld of decades ago may have been pretty similar, but with noses in newspapers instead. 

But there’s been nothing as all-encompassing societally as smartphones. 

Addiction to this technology is now a well-recognised phenomenon. In their book, What We Really Do All Day?, academics Jonathan Gershuny and Oriel Sullivan surmised that we spend around three hours a day on our mobiles. All of this time spent on smartphones means that we’re engaging less with our fellow human beings, at least face to face. 

But what does this mean for the workplace? Well, the erosion of soft skills could have a huge, negative impact on businesses because employees will be less able to establish rapport, build relationships with clients, and adeptly deal with tricky situations.

And as the next generation enters the workplace, there’s a real danger that soft skills could die out. In fact, statistics from the HBR Ascend Youth Skills Survey reveal that a third of those entering the workforce for the first time lack relevant soft skills. 

But what can be done to ensure that this situation doesn’t worsen? Soft skills are prized among employers, and we risk facing an expertise vacuum if proactive action isn’t taken.

First, pinpoint which soft skills benefit your business, and who has or doesn’t have them. Make sure that this information is fed into your recruitment process, so that you can hire the right people from the start.

Then invest in soft skills training. At Vario, we’ve given our contract lawyers bespoke training to improve these skills, because they are parachuted into different businesses on assignments and are expected to perform from day one, so quickly building relationships is essential. 

Qualities like emotional intelligence can be learned, and training can also look at simple things to remember, such as displaying positive body language and maintaining eye contact. Encourage everyone to practice their soft skills too; internal networking sessions or team building exercises can help break people out from behind their screens to practice engaging and thinking differently. 

Ironically, technology is zapping our soft skills just when the evolution of tech means that we need these skills more than ever in order to distinguish ourselves from artificial intelligence. 

A focus on soft skills is a priority for all managers – and the next time you get an Uber, maybe think twice about the “quiet preferred” mode.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.