Today’s workplaces take multitasking to new heights. In an age of big data, artificial intelligence and digitisation, everyone needs to be a technology expert. But the pendulum is starting to swing the other way, and people skills are coming back in fashion.
The result is a new type of employee: the hybrid. They are versatile and multi-faceted, able to crunch numbers and effectively communicate with the best of them. As more companies require employees to wear many hats, ‘versatility’ is quickly becoming the in-demand trait for 2016.
More companies are requiring a mix of technology and people skills, and this is reflected in the type of expertise employers advertise for in job descriptions. A study conducted by Bentley University in the US analysed more than 24 million job listings, looking for key skills across nine different industries. What researchers found was that companies want employees who are as comfortable with creating spreadsheets as they are with interpreting them.
“We may refer to these skills as hard versus soft, IQ versus EQ, or left brain versus right brain,” says Susan Brennan, associate vice-president of university career services at Bentley University, in a statement. “Whatever the terminology, employees must demonstrate deeper and broader competencies to be marketable.”
The ability to compile, analyse and apply big data to everyday business decisions and outcomes is driving change. Roles asking for data analysis skills have jumped by 82 per cent, along with business development (50%) and mathematics (65%), according to the study.
But with this comes the need for people who can also see the big picture, glean the meaning behind the numbers and apply those inferences across the business. Demand for collaboration skills rose by nearly 90 per cent, decision-making skills rose by 87 per cent, mentoring by 73 per cent and process improvement by 69 per cent. Social media, surprisingly, saw the biggest spike in interest, with 160 per cent more job ads asking for this one by name.
“Regardless of function, employees need to be able to effectively communicate what the data means and apply it to big-picture objectives,” Brennan says. “But this can’t be done in silos. Collaboration and teamwork are essential.”
How to find and develop versatility
There are two ways to create a versatile workforce: look for candidates that demonstrate a balance between soft and hard skills, or nurture the required skills in your existing workforce.
When recruiting, ask pointed interview questions that delve into a candidate’s behaviour and past work experiences. It’s easy to screen for the technical skills required for hybrid jobs, but learning how a potential hire puts it all together when a variety of hard and soft skills are required is more difficult.
For example, in addition to questions about training and technical abilities, ask candidates about mentoring or coaching experiences, how they delegate work, and how they have handled difficult situations or colleagues.
“Technical skills are a minimum criteria in the recruitment process,” says Brennan. “It’s the personal qualities that make the difference, but it is not ‘either/or’, it is ‘and’.”
Businesses also need to take advantage of and develop the skills of their existing workforce. Internal crowdsourcing and up-skilling are two ways to identify individuals within the organisation whose interests and expertise extend beyond their current role.
Researchers from the UNSW Business School have released a report that identifies three problem areas that can be helped by a versatile approach: intelligence, design and decisions. How do groups solve and forecast problems? How do teams and individuals innovate? And how do workers and managers choose between existing alternatives?
“Many firms lack a coherent or systematic decision process for ideas,” says Daniel Schlagwein, a lecturer in the school of information systems at UNSW Business School who authored the report. “Involving employees allows enterprises to bring together knowledge and information that may be scattered among different groups, locations, hierarchies or departments.”
Versatility is about more that becoming better at what you do – it’s about doing something you have not been able to do before. It takes commitment to continuous learning and skills development, and HR departments are invaluable in providing guidance to employees looking to develop skills that make them true hybrids, and therefore indispensable. Internal mentoring programs are another way employees and managers can spread knowledge and skill sets around a company.
A workplace culture that encourages exploration of open-ended questions and ideas is also a must. A survey of 3500 people from companies in five countries conducted by the O.C. Tanner Institute found that while leaders say they want all employees to innovate, most employees don’t feel they are given the opportunity to do so. Less than half of respondents who have an idea believe they have access to the necessary means to execute it.
“Leaders need to embrace innovative work as everyone’s responsibility – and mean it,” researchers say. They should also look for ways to encourage the best ideas coming from any employee.”
The nature of work keeps shifting, and there are no signs the pace of change will slow anytime soon. To stay relevant, employees and managers need to be nimble and versatile, just like the workplaces they operate in.