Technology is changing our world to such an extent that the majority of children in school today will do jobs that don’t yet exist. And even for those of us already in the workforce, the jobs that we do will undoubtedly change – many will evolve, many will become obsolete, and many new jobs will emerge.
So, when we think about the essential skills for workplace success, we need to consider not just the jobs that exist today, but the sorts of jobs that may exist in the future. In a world in which more and more jobs (and parts of jobs) are given over to machines.
That said, you might be surprised by some of these essential skills for success. In this brave new digital world, essential skills will lean much more towards softer skills than you might think. Certainly, we will all need to be comfortable working with digital tools – but the overwhelming majority of in-demand skills will be soft skills. The things that machines can’t do, basically.
Based on my book Future Skills: The 20 Skills and Competencies Everyone Needs to Succeed in a Digital World, here are the 20 skills that I believe will be essential for success in a digital world.
1. Digital literacy
This encompasses the digital skills needed to learn, work, and navigate everyday life in our digital world. So, we’re talking about things like using devices, software, and apps with confidence; communicating and collaborating via digital tools; handling data in an appropriate and safe way; keeping abreast of new technologies; and staying safe online.
2. Data literacy
No doubt about it, data is now a prized business asset, which means organizations of all kinds will want to employ data-literate individuals. In an average business context, data literacy means being able to access appropriate data; work with data confidently (creating/gathering data, keeping it up to date, etc.); extract meaning from data; and communicate those data-based insights to others. It’s also important to question the integrity and validity of any data you’re working with, rather than blindly following data.
3. Technical skills
This spans the huge variety of “hard” skills that are necessary for many jobs. If you’re an accountant, for example, your professional accountancy skills are technical skills. The same goes for a plumber, nurse, truck driver, lawyer, teacher, hair stylist, project manager, carpenter, software developer, and so on. Whatever the technical skills required in your field, invest in keeping those skills up to date.
4. Digital threat awareness
Essentially, this means being aware of the dangers of being online or using digital devices – think hacking, phishing, privacy violations, cyberbullying, digital addiction, etc. – and having the tools to keep yourself (and your organization) safe.
5. Critical thinking
In this era of fake news, social media bubbles, and information overload, critical thinking is right up there as one of the most vital soft skills to cultivate for success. To think critically is to think objectively, i.e., to analyze issues or situations based on evidence (rather than personal opinions, biases, etc.). Only then can you build a thorough understanding of what’s really going on and, in turn, make better decisions. This brings me to…
6. Judgment and complex decision making
The world is now so fast-paced, requiring us to think and act faster than ever, and we have more information than ever before, making us prone to information overload. All of which complicates our ability to make good decisions. That’s why we must invest in our decision-making skills. For me, this also includes recognizing the impact that personal preferences, values, and beliefs have on judgment.
7. Emotional intelligence and empathy
So long as there are humans in the workplace and human-to-human relationships, we will always need emotional intelligence and empathy. Emotional intelligence is the ability to be aware of, express, and control our emotions. An emotionally intelligent person is aware that their emotions influence their behavior and impact those around them and is able to manage those emotions accordingly. Empathy, or the ability to see the world from someone else’s perspective, is a key component of emotional intelligence.
Creativity – the act of turning imaginative ideas into reality – absolutely belongs in the workplace, especially as we give more and more routine tasks over to machines. Creativity is what enables creative thinking (i.e., coming up with new ideas, imagining beyond the status quo), and problem-solving (implementing ideas to fix issues or make things better).
9. Collaboration and working in teams
This is one of those skills that seems obvious for workplace success, so why include it? Because the nature of collaboration and teamwork will change as teams evolve to include hybrid workers, fully remote workers, contractors, and potentially other employees from within the business who “float” between projects and teams. With such distributed teams, we will need collaborative skills more than ever.
10. Interpersonal communication
Interpersonal communication in all its forms – oral, written, non-verbal, and, importantly, listening – remains a vital skill for workplace success. It’s important to recognize that we don’t all communicate in the same way, and if you can identify your own communication style(s), and the styles of others, you’ll be better placed to tailor your communication style to match different audiences.
11. Working in gigs
I’d advise everyone to prepare for a future in which more people work as “free agents.” Even if you happen to remain in traditional employment, the freelancer’s ability to be flexible and take responsibility for their own professional development is something we can all learn from. In other words, the “gig economy,” as it’s so often called, is a trend that’s relevant to us all.
12. Adaptability and flexibility
In the workplaces of the future, change is going to be even more of a driving factor than it is today. We’ll have to contend with new technologies, rising automation, the rapidly evolving pace of work, and, most likely, regular and vast business disruption. This means we must all develop the mental resilience to thrive amidst constant change. Adaptability – or the ability to adjust to new conditions – is key to this. Adaptable people are open-minded, curious, willing to change and learn new things, and focused on opportunities, not obstacles.
13. Cultural intelligence and diversity consciousness
Part of creating a fairer world, and fairer organizations, is being respectful of our many differences – such as race, gender, age, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, (dis)ability, and so on – as opposed to glossing over them. This, in a nutshell, is diversity consciousness: a basic awareness of diversity and recognition that diversity is a good thing. Meanwhile, cultural intelligence (also known as cultural quotient, or CQ) refers to our ability to relate to others from different backgrounds.
14. Ethical awareness
Digital transformation has given rise to a whole new set of ethical challenges to overcome – think of the dilemmas surrounding artificial intelligence, for example, or the use of people’s personal data. Then there’s the huge potential fallout from ethical missteps in today’s digital world, where scandals can spread across the internet in moments. It’s no wonder businesses are rapidly cottoning onto ethics as a critical issue, which means they’ll increasingly want to hire people who can help them navigate ethical challenges.
15. Leadership skills
Good leadership is about making sure other people can thrive. But if you think this applies only to those at the top of the ladder, think again. The combination of factors that will shape 21st-century work – distributed teams, increasing diversity, humans transitioning to more creative tasks, the gig economy, fluid organizational structures, and so on – means that leadership skills will be important not only for those in traditional leadership roles but increasingly for those individuals throughout the company who are expected to lead, whether they’re leading a project or an entire department.
16. Brand of “you” and networking
Building and maintaining my personal brand is an important part of my job. But it’s becoming important in so many professions, way beyond the realms of influencers, entrepreneurs, and gurus. In this digital age, your reputation – everyone’s reputation, really – exists in the online world as much as in the offline world. You can take advantage of this to establish your expertise, grow your network, make new connections, enhance your career, and, if you’re self-employed, win new business.
17. Time management
Whether you work from home, work full-time in an office, run your own business, or work for an organization, the ability to manage your time effectively is essential for your workplace performance and, frankly, your mental health. Importantly, time management is about working smarter rather than working harder or longer. Someone who is great at managing their time will know when they’re at their most productive and use that time wisely, reserving the less-productive hours for other tasks (or non-work passions). In this way, time management is all about creating a better work-life balance.
18. Curiosity and continuous learning
If I were to pick just one skill that I think everyone must cultivate, it’d be curiosity and continual learning. Whatever your age, whatever your industry, if you can spark your desire to learn, you’ll be giving yourself the best chance of a successful, fulfilling life. Especially in a work context, curiosity and continual learning are fundamental to being able (and willing) to embrace change. It ensures your skills stay sharp, that you can keep up with the major transformations taking place, and that you stay relevant.
19. Embracing and celebrating change
I’ve already mentioned adaptability – the mental resilience to thrive amidst change – but individuals and organizations will also need the practical skills to embrace change. For me, the practical side of embracing change involves two different processes: learning to manage change successfully (i.e., driving and implementing change) and learning to navigate change from a more personal perspective (i.e., when you’re on the receiving end of change).
20. Looking after yourself
With so much going on in the world and with the rapid pace of change, it can all seem a bit overwhelming, which is why you need to invest time and energy in taking good care of yourself: looking after your mental and physical health, exercising, lowering stress, eating nourishing foods, maintaining a healthy sleep routine, and spending quality time with the people that matter. Essentially, then, we’re talking about creating a more balanced life, in which you separate your work and non-work life and, crucially, feel fulfilled in both areas.
To stay on top of future trends and future skills, make sure to subscribe to my newsletter and have a look at my new book, Future Skills: The 20 Skills & Competencies Everyone Needs To Succeed In A Digital World. Written for anyone who wants to surf the wave of digital transformation – rather than be drowned by it – the book explores why these vital future skills matter, and how to develop them.