Essential soft skills for the future of work

Customisable business insurance
02 October 2020
6 minute read

The future of work will look very different to today. There’s speculation that automation could take over more and more jobs that were once thought of as only for humans, in roles as varied as journalism and medicine. One study by McKinsey predicts that by 2030, as many as 800 million jobs could be lost worldwide to machines.

And with competition for jobs growing, it’s clear that boosting your skills base has never been more needed. So if you’re planning to build your skills, where should you start?

Creative people working on new ideas

Hard skills vs soft skills

Hard skills are technical, teachable skills that we tend to learn on the job, like data analysis or knowing how to drive a forklift truck. Soft skills (or ‘transferable skills’) like teamwork, empathy and leadership tend to be interpersonal and harder to teach.

To future-proof your career, both are essential. But soft skills can tip you over from being an adequate candidate to an ideal one.

We asked entrepreneurs, recruiters and HR professionals to pick the top soft skills we need for the future.

1. Communication

“With more of us working remotely, it's even more important to analyse the soft skills of candidates as you don't get the opportunity to meet those candidates face-to-face” says Ellie Wilson, Co-Founder and Head of Operations for Virtalent - a virtual assistant service. “Employees will need to demonstrate their ability to act and interpret information in a different way, relying on less information than if they were sitting in an office. They will need to over-communicate with colleagues, not leaving anything open to interpretation.”

2. Resilience

“Resilience is the most important soft skill to have and will continue to be crucial for the next decade” says Sarah Dowzell, COO and co-founder of Natural HR. “The workplace today is all about regular, always-on feedback. But being able to take constructive criticism onboard in a positive way rather than as a personal ‘dig’ is something I have found some people really struggle with. Resilience is such an important skill as it means people are able to receive constructive feedback, bounce back, adapt and carry on, even in the face of adversity or radical change.”

3. Creativity

Identifying and enhancing niche skills that AI just can’t emulate will be essential as automation threatens many of our jobs. “Creativity will be what distinguishes us, humans, from computers” says Jonathan Knight, CEO and co-founder of Learning Technology company Ososim. “Creative thinking will help us adjust to the constantly changing world around us and find new ways to solve the problems that change creates.”

4. Love of learning

“It is so important that we are all able to learn from past experience and process feedback, good or bad” say Sarah Dowzell. “What is important for the future, however, is being able to put these learnings into practice and that we can effectively receive and process feedback with optimism.”

It’s easier to gain new skills if you set SMART targets and hold yourself to account. “The ability to choose a concrete goal, motivate yourself to keep learning or pushing yourself even when it’s uncomfortable, and to keep reviewing your progress – that will set apart the best candidates from the rest” says Dean, a recruiter working in technology.

5. Deep listening

“Listening skills are vital for the ongoing success of relationships, business and community” says Dagmar Bryant, a Mindset and Transformational Coach. “We need to take the time to really listen to what is being said and not just assume what someone meant. When we take the time to listen, we hear more than just words. We get to understand someone and what their view of the world is. This opens doors to stronger collaboration and more meaningful interaction with others."

“After all” says David Berwick, “Communication is as much about listening as about speaking.”

Businesswoman on a video call with her colleague

6. Adaptability

“Flexibility to constantly adjust to new realities and a shifting environment will be critical” says Elisa Alabaster, COO and co-founder of Learning Technology company Ososim. “We’ll also need the persistence to work with the constant change to actually get things done and the empathy to keep things human whilst we're doing it”.

Ellie Wilson says, “Over the next decade, as many more of us transition to working from home, we all need to develop an entrepreneurial mindset by having more commercial awareness of the changing world around us. Processes and procedures that once worked in your office job may no longer apply from home, and you need to ensure that you can adapt and still be relevant in your role. Employees will need to spot opportunities and focus on upskilling themselves; not remaining stagnant nor getting left behind as businesses start to adapt to new ways of working.”

7. Honesty

“To succeed, we’ll need to be more real and honest than we have ever been before” says Rebecca Newenham, founder and director of virtual agency Get Ahead VA. “Anything other than total transparency is just wasting my time” says Johannes, co-founder of a PR agency. “I need my staff to tell me immediately if they’ve messed up, otherwise how can I support them to fix the problem?”

8. Self-awareness

Communication is not a one-way street. It’s about being sensitive to how you are perceived by others. “Mindful communication will become one of the most important soft skills over the next decade” says Ellie Wilson. “Being mindful of the language you use and how others might interpret your words is key to ensuring a successful remote working relationship. We're increasing our use of emojis and gifs and relying less on body language and tone of voice. We will need to become more aware of how we're communicating remotely, how others will perceive what we say and the impact of our words.”

9. Emotional intelligence

In the workplaces of the future, employees with a deep understanding of interpersonal dynamics will have the upper hand. “Learning about how teams and groups function, I think, will be an essential tool during COVID-19 and beyond – vital for teams to help them work together” says Rachel Kelly from the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, a not-for-profit social science organisation. “It’s become much more apparent that people act socially in complex systems, so understanding how these work and what impact they have, will be crucial.”

10. Relationship-building

“Teamwork will always be an important skill” says Simon Roderick, MD of Fram Search, a financial services recruitment consultancy. “But the ability to connect and build meaningful relationships under hybrid/remote models will be key.”

11. Negotiation

“The freelance market is growing exponentially and within the next decade, it is predicted it will rise by over 47%, becoming almost half of the employment market” says Hayley Smith, owner and Head of PR at Boxed Out PR. “Negotiation will be key in navigating this market, and your career. Negotiation skills aren't just useful when discussing money, they are also key for problem solving, conflict resolution, setting personal and professional boundaries, contract and legal disputes and pitching and persuasion. Developing strong negotiation skills will also help you foster better relationships with people, despite differences, build a better reputation and will also help install confidence, all which help you to advance further in your career.”

And here’s a skill you don’t see on every CV. Michael Alexis, CEO of TeamBuilding, shares why emoji literacy is the soft skill of the future:

12. Do you speak emoji?

“Emojis are increasingly being used in professional messaging to indicate tone” says Michael Alexis. “This ‘emoji nomenclature’ is critical to effective communication, and even more so as people transition to remote work. On messaging platforms like Slack and Microsoft Teams, emojis can be used to indicate even further meaning. For example, a green checkmark may indicate done, and the little eyeball emoji can mean “I’ve seen this and am working on it.” Developing your soft skills in emoji nomenclature will be like being able to speak the secondary language at the office, which is critical for performance.

This content has been created for general information purposes and should not be taken as formal advice. Read our full disclaimer.

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