Why soft skills are so important to the future of work

Employers often use the term “soft skills” as a catch-all for everything that’s not considered a core, cognitive ability related to a job (like writing code for a programmer or running data analysis for a marketer). Those soft skills might include everything from creativity to collaboration to punctuality, and they’re increasingly important as our work changes in the face of automation and artificial intelligence.

AI will radically reorient the nature of all work. The emotional economy that emerges will be dependent on workers who have the skills to utilize their unique “human” talents. Moreover, those specific talents, broadly encompassed by the idea of soft skills, will become the most sought after abilities by employers over the next half decade. In fact, our economy is already tilting more toward a reliance on social and service skills.


These abilities will be vitally important to competing in the future economy, yet the United States is in the back half of OECD nations when it comes to soft skill proficiency. That’s a problem, because 44% of executives say lack of soft skills is the biggest gap in the U.S. workforce. So what exactly are soft skills? And how can employers hire for them and encourage their development?

Soft skills by any other name…

Within the academic world, a semantic and definitional debate is raging about how to classify soft skills and what to call them. 21st century skills, non-cognitive traits and habits, social and emotional skills, growth mindsets, grit, soft skills—these terms are all slightly different, but often used interchangeably to describe an overlapping set of skills.

The chart above from the World Economic Forum shows exactly which of these skills will be most important for the future of work. In general, soft skills encompass creativity, problem solving, collaboration, empathy, and flexibility. These abilities generally can’t (or won’t) be offloaded to AI any time soon, and they’re skills that make it easier for people to adapt to changing work. As AI emerges and reshapes many of the tasks associated with our work, the soft skill tool kit is what will help you adjust and retrain so you can keep doing your job.

That’s why these skills are so important to the future of work. If you’re hiring for an AI developer position, deep knowledge of neural network design and machine learning algorithms are an obvious plus. But the ability to collaborate with colleagues, think creatively about new problems, and empathize with end users will be invaluable at allowing that hire to adapt when the AI starts programming itself and the nature of that particular job evolves.

The 7 essential (future of work) skills

Education researcher Ellen Galinsky identified seven essential life skills that encompass most of the soft skills necessary for the future or work. They are:

  • Focus and self-control
  • Perspective taking
  • Communicating
  • Making connections
  • Critical thinking
  • Taking on challenges
  • Self-directed, engaged learning

Galinsky’s research deals with children and how development of these essential skills affect achievement later in life (spoiler alert: kids who develop these skills at a young age achieve higher levels of education), but they’re also relevant to adults. “These skills weave together our social, emotional and intellectual capacities,” says Galinsky. “They help us go beyond what we know—and tap our abilities to use all that we have learned in these different areas.”

When hiring, alongside assessments for the cognitive functions of the job (the programming or data analysis), measure the soft skills that candidates bring to the table. Here are a few ideas for ways to assess those skills during the hiring process:

  • If your company spends most of the day communicating in writing over Slack, invite prospective candidates into Slack during the interview. Ask them complex questions and gauge their ability to make themselves understood via the written word.
  • Test final candidates with real-world challenges that require creativity to solve (I don’t mean the “how many ping pong balls can fit in a school bus?” stuff, but actual problems related to the role they’re hoping to fill). Give them a choice of challenges and see which they choose: do they opt for the more difficult problem or take on the one with the more obvious solution?
  • When talking to a candidate’s references, don’t focus on past job performance and results as much as asking about specific instances in which the candidate collaborated with others or spent time learning new things.

For existing employees, these soft skills can be developed and nurtured. Here are six things you can do to set up your team for success in the future of work:

  1. Bake it into onboarding – Help your employees succeed on day one by including soft skills acquisition and development in your onboarding programs. Work with them to understand the skills they’ll need to lean on most in their role and identify the areas where they could use improvement. Pair them with a mentor who they can lean on to work on skills gaps. (See #5.)
  2. Set soft skill goals – Don’t just set performance goals around business objectives. In addition to hitting a new customer acquisition milestone, for example, help employees set soft skills goals like improving their public speaking. Then give them opportunities to practice and hit those goals (like running internal meetings, speaking at a company all-hands, or running a lunch and learn session).
  3. Allow time for reflection – Humans are not machines. We need time to reflect and process new information. Give your employees ample time to internalize new lessons and think critically about their own strengths and faults.
  4. Support continuous learning – As Galinsky says: “It is through learning that we can realize our potential. As the world changes, so can we, for as long as we live—as long as we learn.” That’s more relevant than ever in the workplace as AI rapidly remakes virtually every industry and changes how we work. Give your employees access and space to learn new skills and expand their minds.
  5. Model the right traits – “If [your company’s] leadership values skills such as a positive attitude, strong work ethic, teamwork and collaboration, the newer employees will naturally start to inherit these very important traits,” says marketing executive Ed Mitzen. Mentorship programs pairing younger employees with more seasoned pros are a good way to pass along valued skills.
  6. Provide creative outlets – Working for your startup is stimulating, no doubt, but occasionally tackling completely novel problems helps spark creativity and critical thinking. You can help team members do that through things like company hackathons or 20% time (or similar). At x.ai, we offer all employees a six week week paid sabbatical to explore whatever they want when they hit their four year anniversary. Skills developed through pursuits like this are almost always transferrable and will ultimately help job performance.

We’re rapidly entering a world in which the work we do looks radically different than what we did a decade ago, a year ago, or even yesterday. AI and automation are rewiring the nature of work to focus more on the very qualities and talents that make us human. To succeed in this future, we’ll need to embrace those abilities, seek them out when hiring, nurture them as managers, and hone them as individuals.



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