LinkedIn 2019 Talent Trends: Soft Skills, Transparency and Trust

This week LinkedIn released its 2019 Global Talent Trends research, a study that summarizes job and hiring data across millions of people, and the results are quite interesting. (5,165 talent and managers responded, a big sample.)

In an era when automation, AI, and technology has become more pervasive, important (and frightening) than ever, the big issue companies face is about people: how we find and develop soft skills, how we create fairness and transparency, and how we make the workplace more flexible, humane, and honest.

I just finished a long conversation with the founders of the Great Place to Work Institute (the company that analyzes the data for the Fortune Best Places to Work), and they told me that among all the HR and talent programs they’ve analyzed for years (benefits, wellbeing, training, career coaching, pay, stock options, and on), none of them really correlate to great places to work. The one that does is trust. Do you really trust your company, your manager, and your leaders?

And this is what comes out of the LinkedIn finding. In today’s era of “fake news” complaints and lots of worries about political and economic equity, employees are saying “I want to work for a company I truly trust.”

After All The Focus On Tech: It’s Soft Skills That Matter

The most interesting part of this research is a simple fact: in today’s world of software engineering and ever-more technology, it’s soft skills that employers want. 91% of companies cited this as an issue and 80% of companies are struggling to find better soft skills in the market.

What is a “soft skill?” The term goes back twenty years when we had “hard skills” (engineering and science) so we threw everything else into the category of “soft.” In reality soft skills are all the human skills we have in teamwork, leadership, collaboration, communication, creativity, and person to person service. It’s easy to “teach” hard skills, but soft skills must be “learned.”

The LinkedIn research discovered the five most important soft skills in demand today: creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability, and time management. This is fully consistent with the new research that just came out that shows how design, business acumen, and a new generation of digital skills are rapidly differentiating the highest paying jobs of the future.

It’s interesting to me that in a world where everyone wants to become a software engineer, it’s these non-technical skills that matter. In my experience this has always been true: the people who got straight A’s in science and engineering (like me) never performed as well as the people who were the most gregarious, collaborative, team-builders. I watched many of my peers at IBM skyrocket ahead in their careers as managers and leaders while my career grew slowly and I developed my own soft skills over a long period of time. (Now as an analyst I study this stuff so I get a lot of coaching.)

For those of you who are hiring or looking for jobs, these are truly the skills of the future. All my research shows that the more “digital” your business becomes, the more important skills in collaboration, design, listening, and complex problem-solving become. And for all professionals at all levels: building soft skills is a never-ending process. Every day you’ll find yourself in meetings or conversations where you think “I could have handled that better.” That’s how we learn, and that’s what the research says people value.

It’s Hard To Assess Soft Skills

The LinkedIn research clearly points out that while hiring managers always look for technical skills and job experience, it is the soft skills that drive success. 92% of respondents say soft skills are more important than technical skill and 89% told us that bad hires typically lack soft skills.

The challenge in hiring is that assessing soft skills is difficult. New AI-based tools like Pymetrics or Koru can do a better job than ever before, but most companies (75%) still rely on behavioral questions or simply body language (70%). More than half the hiring managers use situational questions and a third ask candidates to do projects and then present the results to hiring managers. All this is good, but there’s no substitution for getting to know a candidate, talking with blind references (references who are not given to you by the candidate), and spending time with people on the job.

The LinkedIn study also describes how important it is to have clear values and criteria for evaluating people. Asking interviewers “how did you like him/her?” doesn’t tell you much. It’s far easier to ask “can you give me an example where you demonstrated a focus on quality, one of our core values?” These types of behavioral questions can get people to open up and really show you how they think, behave, and work in a team.

Work Flexibility Rises To The Top

The second big area I want to point out is the enormous growth in work flexibility as a criteria. As I like to put it, the tether between the employer and employee has been getting looser every year, and today 31% of all employees tell us that “flexible work arrangements” are very important in a job. This is a 78% increase since 2016.

Why this growth? You probably know. We’re all busy with our lives (family, parents, pets) and the always-on expectations of work have punctured our personal lives in a big way. So as a result we want to work when we can; we may want a side-hustle or two (Deloitte research says that 64% of Gen-Z workers have side hustle jobs), and we just need time to attend to our lives. And given the agile, networked way we work today, it’s perfectly fine to let people work from home, a coffee shop, or wherever.

All the research I’ve read shows that flexibility is an enormous driver of employee engagement, health, and wellbeing. There’s nothing more upsetting than being forced to go to work in a snowstorm, commute in traffic, or get up early or stay late when you have personal issues in the way. It’s not a way to build a great work environment and it’s not healthy for us as individuals. (And there is some amazing new Health Tech that makes flexible work easier.)

Despite many stories of companies wanting their employees to “come to the office,” studies show that flexible arrangements improve productivity. I will say, however, that all my studies show that you do have to bring people together on a regular basis. At least every few weeks or sometimes more often it’s important to have people meet and work face to face. Personal relationships and trust are established through contact and from there work gets easier.

Pay Transparency Takes Off

The third topic in the report I want to highlight is the extraordinary growth in pay transparency. In my early days working nobody had any idea how much anyone else made. It was a dark and hidden secret.

Right now we have a real problem around the world with pay. As I described in a recent article about wages, most employees feel they are falling behind.

While you may not be able to convince your CFO to give everyone a raise (you should have that discussion, by the way, and here’s an argument to help), you can fix the problem with transparency. Transparency creates fairness, and fairness creates trust.

The LinkedIn research shows a 136% increase in pay data shared on LinkedIn over the last four years and 27% of companies now openly share salary ranges. I’ve studied this topic and the highest performing companies I meet with regularly publish their internal pay benchmarks and compare them to competitors. This gives the company an opportunity to get ahead of the rumors and clearly explain “why” we pay what we do. In most companies up to 35% of all “wages” are paid in the form of benefits, so if you’re transparent you can explain to your employees the “total investment” you’re making in them.

The days of “open pay” are not here yet – many experiments with total transparency have been problematic (it begs the question of bias). But every study ever done shows that employees trust employers that share pay bands, gender and race pay equity ratios, and disclose executive pay. (It’s now a Federal law to disclose CEO to median pay ratio in most large companies). This process helps with the performance management process and it just helps ensure managers are treating everyone fairly.

A New Focus on Eliminating Sexual Harassment

The final topic I want to point out is a big increased focus on exposing and addressing sexual harassment. The research shows a 71% increase in workplace harassment content published on LinkedIn. Is this a good thing? Yes.

This is a topic that has clearly moved from “not-discussed” to “widely discussed” in many companies, and the LinkedIn researcher shows progress. I just got off the phone with an HR manager in the UK (she works for a construction engineering company) and she told me the environment there is still very male-oriented, so they are considering implementing a new secure “harassment and misconduct reporting” system to open up the lines of communication.

But we have a lot of work to do. Only 34% of the respondents in the LinkedIn survey told us they have a zero-tolerance policy. (That kind of shocked me, to be honest.) Only 18% are working on improving their investigation practices, and only 25% are improving reporting processes. I do think this trend toward open, secure reporting platforms could address this issue – we just need ways to shine a light on this problem and more of it will go away.

The website Fairygodboss, which serves as a Glassdoor-like website for women, now has hundreds of thousands of company reviews. As you can see from the stats below, only 60% of users tell others their company treats women fairly. This is still far too low.

Bottom Line: The World of Work is Changing

There were a whole variety of useful tips and examples in this report, so I highly recommend reading it. The bottom line is this: we are working in a more dynamic, contingent, people-oriented world. While technology is getting more pervasive, it’s the human skills that matter. Take the next year to focus on culture and building everlasting skills and relationships at work; it will pay off for you, your organization, and your customers.

And thank you LinkedIn for doing this research. It’s a big effort for the company and it brings us all insights and solutions we can use.

Editor’s Note: This article republished with permission of the author, with first publication on LinkedIn.

Posted in: AI, Communication Skills, KM, Leadership, Management