Today’s employees – regardless of age, experience, functional skills or job titles – must now demonstrate a core set of skills if they wish to remain employable. Here are five skills that commentators such as business school researchers and global analysts are saying will be essential in 2021 and beyond.
Worldwide, many organisations have encouraged – or were forced to allow – employees to work from home (WFH). Academics Meenakshi Kaushik and Neha Guleria at Lingayas University in India have recently pointed out that effective collaboration for WFH employees is not simply about logging in for scheduled meetings and calls; it requires that employees learn when and how best to initiate contact with colleagues and other stakeholders in order to generate ideas and get work done that benefits the team.
When employees share a physical office space, they often share knowledge and ideas during unscheduled encounters – for example, when employees pass each other in corridors or while waiting for official meetings to begin. The process of simply chatting – about work as well as non-work topics – can also build liking and trust, further enabling employees to be less guarded about sharing knowledge and ideas.
In a WFH world, the risk is that some employees may lose out on such opportunities to chat, socialise, build trust, learn from each other, and so on. The danger is likely greatest for those employees who most enjoy the relative solitude of WFH in that it allows them to work on tasks and projects more independently with fewer interruptions.
As a result, consider to what extent you are visible within your team and wider organisation. When you do have meetings with colleagues, make an effort to devote at least some time to social conversations as opposed to focusing solely on work tasks. Also, be sure to set up occasional meetings and to engage actively with chat groups and forums so that you are aware of and can deal with problems and opportunities as they arise.
2. Digital proficiency
2020 saw digital proficiency becoming a core skill for employees at all levels and in all sizes of firms. Information and management researchers led by Ikpe Justice Akpan of Kent State University have pointed out that, even among small firms, ‘some technologies that were being tested or perceived to be "too cutting edge" before the lockdown suddenly have a new potential market due to the pandemic.’ For example, many employees at the start of last year may have had little or no experience of using virtual video platforms. But in 2021, it is not uncommon for employees to be using multiple video platforms (for example, Skype, Teams, Zoom, LogMeIn, WebEx, etc) for dealing with stakeholders across different organisations.
Historically, employees have often been reluctant to adopt new technologies – arguing perhaps that the ways they were used to doing things was good enough. The pandemic has demonstrated that most employees are actually capable of adapting to a great deal of change.
As a result, employers in the future may have even less tolerance for employees that they regard as technological laggards. To remain employable, be sure to demonstrate your willingness to try new digital technologies such as collaboration software and analytical tools. Volunteer and get involved in identifying and fixing problems relating to such technologies. Think of learning about and becoming proficient at new technologies as a crucial part of your job – potentially more important than simply updating your technical skills and knowledge.
3. Emotional regulation
Covid-19 has caused many unsettling changes in people’s lives. It is hardly surprising that mental health professionals reported that the incidence of depression and psychological distress in 2020 may have been around triple what it was in previous years.
Employees will increasingly need to regulate or manage their own emotions. Clients and employers prefer to work with – and hire – people who at least appear to be calm, upbeat and professional. Clients and employers unfortunately find it emotionally draining to be dealing with individuals who habitually appear glum, irritable or otherwise negative. To use the psychological jargon, putting on a positive demeanour is called emotional labour.
However, producing emotional labour is merely about pretending to be positive – about demonstrating surface emotions. A better strategy is to learn the skills of emotional regulation – ie how to deal genuinely and at a deeper level with difficult emotions such as sadness, anger, anxiety, envy and so on.
Some people may be inclined to dismiss the importance of emotions in the workplace – they may say that feelings are fleeting and inconsequential. But research confirms that people’s emotions affect their performance. When people feel anxious or depressed, their productivity is reduced. A research study conducted by economists led by Andrew Oswald and published in the Journal of Labor Economics found that helping individuals to be happier increased their productivity by approximately 12%. The researchers concluded that different forms of evidence 'are consistent with the existence of a causal link between human wellbeing and human performance.'
In other words, the skills of emotion regulation are not just about helping you to feel better, but also lifting your productivity in the workplace. So, go online to read more about how to manage your moods and emotions. Consider adopting techniques from the more respected schools of psychological therapy such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). In addition, consider asking for advice from colleagues, as well as friends and family, on how you might help yourself to be seen as an appropriately confident, positive professional.
4. Career self-management
2020 saw so much change in the workplace that employers could be forgiven for not making their employees’ career development a major priority. But just because employers are not focused on career development does not mean that employees should give up on it.
Think of yourself as the captain of your own career. Avoid the trap of passively waiting for your line supervisor to give you challenging projects or tell you how you should be developing yourself. Begin by reflecting on where you would like to go next in your career. What kind of work interests you? Do you want to move into general management or into specific specialisms? In the long term, do you wish to remain an employee or set up your own business?
Vocational experts such as Amit Kramer and Karen Kramer at the University of Illinois also recommend considering the macro-environment. Just because you want something does not mean that it will be easy to achieve. For example, the Covid-19 pandemic has given more prominence to certain industries such as healthcare and Fintech. Other industries such as hospitality and travel may experience a downturn that could last for years.
Then consider what steps you must take in order to make progress towards your career goals. What kinds of projects or kinds of work should you pursue? Are there important decision makers, mentors or sponsors that you should try to work with? What technical as well as broader management skills do you need to learn – and how?
It is likely that the economic, social and technological consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic will be felt for years to come. Many organisations are already reviewing their business models and physical office requirements, for example.
Employees must therefore become more accepting of change. Employees who are willing to adapt and take on new challenges will be in demand; employees who try to resist change will now more than ever be seen as problems to be left behind rather than individuals who must be won over.
In particular, career commentators Daniel Spurk at the University of Bern and Caroline Straub at Bern University of Applied Sciences suggest that the nature of employment is likely to change. They point to shifts in working arrangements (for example, short-time work and more flexible hours) as well as a greater reliance on a range of employment relationships (for example, temporary agency work and other forms of subcontracted labour, as well as new forms of working such as is typical in the so-called gig economy).
The nature of these sorts of changes is unclear and will likely differ greatly across countries and sectors. However, it is highly probable that greater flexibility will be required from employees who wish to remain employable.
- WORK Covid-19 Post-pandemic changes – Spurk (2020)
By Dr Rob Yeung, a business psychologist and coach at consulting firm Talentspace (@RobYeung)