Top Professional Development Skills for a Modern Workforce

Top Professional Development Skills for a Modern Workforce

These days, terms like “modern workforce” and “professional development skills” mean something different than they did even a year ago. While modern professionals have always needed to manage their time, communicate their ideas, and manage their stress, these skills have taken on a whole new slant—and priority!—with the pandemic.

So, if you are looking to advance your career, it’s a good idea to refresh these skills in light of changing workplace (and work-from-home) requirements. Professionals in HR who are in a position to help train an organization's workforce might also want to take a hard look at those training materials to see what needs to be updated and replaced.

Here is a countdown of the top 5 professional development skills that are in the highest demand:

Top Professional Development Skills for a Modern Workforce

#5: Stress Management

Stress is simply our body’s reaction to a threat or a challenge. A small, healthy amount of stress in the workplace is not only inevitable, it’s a good thing: It signals that your work is challenging.

An overwhelming workload, weighty responsibilities, and conflict with others all can raise our stress to unhealthy levels. Fold in worries about the COVID-19 pandemic and politics, and it’s possible to stay in a stressed state 24-7. In fact, nearly eighty percent of workers feel stress on the job, and nearly half of those people say they need help learning how to manage it, according to the Attitudes in the American Workplace VII survey by the American Institute of Stress.

Dealing with stress, then, is a key professional development skill. For example, it helps to know that there are different kinds of stress (time stress, anticipatory stress, situational stress, and meeting stress), and that there are different methods for dealing with each of them. Our series on stress management details these distinctions and more, and is a good way for employees to gain some actionable insights into their own stress and how it can be handled, no matter where they are.

#4: Creativity

As a child, I thought creativity meant just art, music, and dance. (In other words, things I liked doing but I wasn’t very good at. Although I invented tornado arms!) As an adult, I have a much broader definition and understanding of creativity. We all use creativity to problem-solve and find new ways to become better at our jobs. Whether you are writing, designing training materials, pouring over spreadsheets, or hunting for a bug in lines of code, you need to be able to be creative.

Here’s a challenge I’ve encountered with creativity: I feed off the energy of my co-workers. I enjoy surrounding myself with people who have the skills that I lack. I feel most engaged when I see others engaged, tackling the day’s work with professional talent and creativity. A quick chat in the breakroom, an exchange of funny weekend stories, or a recap of the latest TV show can reenergize a sluggish afternoon. Working from home has limited the degree to which I can feed off that energy. I mean I love my dog but she’s not the most creative co-worker.

I suspect there are a lot of other people out there like me, who are also struggling to bring their best creative selves to their job. Thankfully, creativity is a skill that can be learned, molded, and improved upon. For example, a modern professional can work on asking probing questions, using concept mapping (or other methods of visualization), and engaging in routines that spark their creativity. (These ideas and more are fleshed out in more detail in our video series on creativity.)

#3: Communications

Have you noticed just how different modern communication is? Many times it lacks eye contact, grammar, and even the use of your vocal cords! In a world of texting and emojis, the art of communications is often lost.

Working from home has compounded that problem. Even if an employee has mastered the in-person meeting, there is still a lot they can learn about how best to communicate during a Zoom meeting. And remember how people used to complain that a meeting could have been an email? We’re now finding out just how true that is, which means that writing skills are in higher demand than ever.

Think about what the modern professional has to learn here. They need to learn best practices for interpersonal communication around things like roles, responsibilities, tone, and emotion. They need to know how to be active listeners. They need to know how to be assertive without being overly aggressive. All of these things are skills that can be sharpened with training. (Our “This vs. That” series, for example, does a great job of outlining the difference between being assertive vs. aggressive, compromise vs. cave, persistent vs. pestering, and so on.)

#2: Time Management

In the average workplace, an employee is interrupted approximately every 11 minutes. Each time an employee is distracted from a task, it takes roughly 25 minutes to return to that task (with full attention and the proper mindset).

The situation is even more chaotic when working from home. A workplace is specifically constructed to keep the focus on work, filtering out non-work disruptions. At home, there are the usual work disruptions plus more personal ones. My dog, for example, is a (lovable) distraction: She is a passionate and vocal guard dog, loudly protecting the house from the mailman, squirrels, and blowing leaves. Homeschooling the kids, arranging food delivery, and even dealing with the neighbors are also increasingly common distractions.

Such demands on our time and attention mean employees need better time management skills than ever before. For example, do they know how to prioritize intelligently? Are they blocking time for important tasks? Are they planning out future events, perhaps using a bullet journal? There are dozens of methods for getting organized and making the most productive use of time; our series on time management skills covers some of the more popular ones and can be useful for any professional development program.

#1: Flexibility and Coping with Change

Here’s a truth about human nature when it comes to change: People hesitate to be flexible and instead resist change because we are creatures of habit. The more a particular change impacts you, the more you are naturally going to resist it until new habits can be built.

COVID has brought a huge number of changes that affect our daily routines. We all have had to learn how to work from home, conduct meetings via Zoom, adjust our schedules, and more. The key to dealing with these changes is to be a part of the change and actively work toward building new habits.

Building new habits is hard work, but it can be done with the right guidance. Our series on change management, for example, details the different behaviors we tend to display when change happens, and how individuals can take control so that they can be more flexible in the face of change.

Aren't There More Professional Development Skills?

Some readers might argue with me about this list. Is flexibility really #1? Why don’t topics like teamwork appear? What about technical skills, like using Excel or math for business?

We could probably spend a good hour over virtual coffee arguing about which skills are top; these reflect my own experience and discussions with clients. The important point is not which are in the top 5, but whether your employees have the opportunity to improve on whatever skills they need to improve.

For example, face-to-face selling skills will be much more critical to some businesses than others. In some workplaces, email etiquette is not a big deal; in others, it’s everything. As your workplace has changed, have your employees had the opportunity to redefine and sharpen their skill sets? Have you?

Having access to a library of off-the-shelf content on the most in-demand professional development skills is the solution. Our workplaces have changed dramatically—having fresh, relevant content to sharpen our skills is what will keep us healthier, safer, more productive, and more competitive.

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