One of the biggest and most befuddling challenges for global companies of every size is creating and maintaining a future-proof workforce. As automation and AI render formerly useful employees redundant, leaders looking to remain competitive in a rapidly changing business landscape need to hire and retain employees with future-proof skills that benefit their organizations for years to come.
The End of Creative Destruction?
For the global workforce, the stark, uncompromising reality is this: over the coming decades, untold millions of jobs will be lost to automation, artificial intelligence, and process efficiency. Increasingly, the carnage will affect formerly “safe” skilled laborers and professional workers with university degrees and advanced certifications.
In the past, technological innovation spurred creative destruction. Even as obsolete jobs disappeared, new, technology-driven positions took their place.
But there’s reason to believe that, going forward, the increasingly rapid pace of technological advancement will produce more destruction and less creativity.
“Will technology create enough new jobs that advancing technology itself can’t do? Unlikely,” writes Ed Hess, professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, in a recent op-ed for the Washington Post. “We are talking about a major societal challenge [and] the future of work in the United States and the world. And we as a society are not prepared. Many of us as individuals are not prepared.”
Be Careful What You Wish For
For employers, maintaining or increasing output with fewer employees sounds like a dream come true, especially in light of persistently sluggish productivity growth. (In a characteristically excellent report, the Wall Street Journal explains why poor productivity growth is bad for the broader economy.)
They shouldn’t get too cocky, though. A world in which productivity growth is self-reinforcing – where human workers aren’t needed to create, supervise, and troubleshoot non-human production components – is a long way off. For the foreseeable future, highly skilled employees will be the backbone of the technology-driven workplace.
To complicate matters further, the composition of the set of ideal employee skills is changing nearly as fast as technology itself.
Employers serious about preparing for the next phase of tech-driven disruption need to think beyond the near term. They must ask, what skills and competencies will remain relevant five years from now? Ten years hence?
These are future-proof skills. Though there’s no way to completely eliminate future risk, filling open positions with future-proof candidates certainly reduces your chances of being caught flat-footed by unexpected developments.
Sounds like a straightforward proposition. But the devil is in the details. Future-proof skills are in distressingly short supply. That’s one of the many factors contributing to the worsening talent shortage in the U.S. and elsewhere. Important as it is, future-proofing alone can’t rectify the talent shortage – as Karen Schwartz of CraftForce astutely points out, that requires a multi-pronged approach.
6 Key Future-Proof Skills
What do the key employee skills of the future look like?
In Hess’s new book, Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age, co-written with Katherine Ludwig, he argues that many future-proof skills are examples of emotional intelligence (EI) or higher-order thinking.
“Humans will be needed to do those tasks that require higher-order critical thinking, innovation, creativity, [and] high emotional engagement with other humans,” writes Hess, adding that “trade skills requiring real-time problem solving and manual dexterity,” will also remain in vogue.
Importantly, he argues that “[p]rofessional jobs that don’t require higher-order thinking and problem solving skills or high emotional engagement will be automated.”
Here’s a look at six of the top future-proof skills your next hire needs to have (or be willing to learn).
#1. Multicultural Fluency
According to The Global Leadership Forecast 2014|2015, a massive survey by DDI and The Conference Board, CEOs prize cultural competency over any other soft skill.
That’s because the business world is more globalized than ever before. No matter where you site your home office, your team is virtually certain to collaborate with vendors and clients in other countries – very likely on other continents.
And, thanks to cheap, lightning-fast communications, even modestly sized companies can and do build global workforces with ease. Your employees need to be comfortable working with colleagues from a dizzying variety of backgrounds and cultures – and to see those differences as sources of strength and opportunity, not division or distraction.
#2. Multigenerational Comfort
As lifespans increase and healthy employees put off retirement longer, the workforce is four generations deep for perhaps the first time in history.
Millennials, Gen-Xers, Baby Boomers, and pre-Boomers (sometimes known as the Silent Generation) need to coexist comfortably and work toward common organizational goals, stylistic differences and generational touchstones notwithstanding. Leaders can’t tolerate young employees who roll their eyes at older colleagues (very often their superiors), nor should they countenance inflexible senior employees who take a “my way or the highway” approach to their younger peers.
When hiring, look for candidates with clear generational awareness. If you’re hiring from an older candidate pool, your top choices should exhibit willingness to adopt new collaborative methods and leverage social tools to remain productive and relevant. Likewise, screen younger candidates for maturity, receptiveness to feedback, and openness to relying on evidence-based processes despite their perceived stodginess.
#3. Effective Interpersonal Communication
This is one future-proof skill that’s not going out of fashion anytime soon. Jamelah Henry, a U.S.-based business coach, identifies three key benefits of clear, open, effective interpersonal communication in the workplace:
- Overcoming diversity-driven impediments to productivity (see #1)
- Fostering closer collaboration within and between teams
- Boosting employee morale, which has crucial knock-on effects for productivity and work quality
As Henry indicates, effective communication is a two-way street. Leaders who rightly expect their subordinates to communicate honestly, clearly, and with timeliness must return the favor. Top-down, protocol-driven communication is critical to the smooth functioning of any organization, regardless of size.
#4. Conflict Resolution Skills (And an Even Keel)
When conflict arises between two or more colleagues, the best employees know how to take control and defuse the argument. They also know how to win or shape arguments without (rhetorically) firing a shot – by persuading others with logic and emotional appeal, rather than brute force. This skill set is non-negotiable in management candidates.
Non-managerial employees with above-average conflict resolution skills and no-drama dispositions tend to rise fast within their organizations. Do your utmost to retain them, as they’re likely to flesh out your next generation of supervisory, managerial, and executive talent.
#5. Adaptive Thinking
In an excellent 2011 Harvard Business Review report that remains as relevant as ever, Martin Reeves and Mike Deimler posit that successful organizations must be adaptive.
“Instead of being really good at doing some particular thing,” they write, “companies must be really good at learning how to do new things.”
Adaptive thinking is fundamentally a people-driven process. And organizations, after all, are only as good as their people. If your workforce isn’t open to “learning how to do new things,” or experimenting with new solutions to old problems, your organization’s ability to adapt will be severely constrained.
#6. Cognitive Load Management
We’re living through the golden age of information. Never has so much data been available with so little friction.
Unfortunately, the human brain isn’t really wired to synthesize vast amounts of data, let alone subjective information, in real time. Even the most intelligent human employees can’t keep up with the constant, unfiltered inflow of information to which they’re subjected every minute of every working day.
The best employees are those capable of applying effective filters that limit and shape what attracts their immediate attention, puts less pressing information aside for later, and discards the rest. In other words, those capable of resisting distraction. This future-proof skill is bound up with other essential soft skills, such as time management and workflow organization.
How is your organization building the workforce of the future?