Artificial Intelligence

New study finds AI is making soft skills more important in the workplace

AI can automate tasks, but it can't replicate human soft skills like critical thinking and creativity.

AI can automate tasks, but it can't replicate human soft skills like critical thinking and creativity. Image: Pexels/Andrea Piacquadio

Peter Cardon
Professor of Business Communication, University of Southern California
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Artificial Intelligence

  • Business school professor Peter Cardon breaks down new research that shows how AI impacts hiring.
  • As AI automates more tasks, workers will need to be able to communicate effectively with each other and with machines.
  • Face-to-face interaction and so-called "soft skills" like ethics, communication, and integrity are becoming crucial.
  • There are ways to develop soft skills, such as taking courses and volunteering.

The recent chaos at OpenAI was rooted in a clash between techno-optimists and those who are more hesitant about what our AI-driven future may look like. A smaller version of this battle is playing out in workplaces across the world as companies incorporate new AI technologies into their workflows.

Many employees and managers are excited about how AI can make their work easier and more efficient. But others are concerned that AI will replace people, dampen creativity and ingenuity, make their own skills obsolete, and create workplaces that feel more machine-centric and less human.

Rather than the soulless, robotic future some people fear, I predict AI integration will demand that workplaces become even more human-centered. My latest research shows that in the AI age, employers expect to increasingly value “soft skills” that enhance human interactions and foster rich, people-centered company cultures. They anticipate that AI will work best when it enhances people’s talents and helps build human connectedness.

In our recent study, my colleagues and I surveyed nearly 700 business leaders about what skills employees need as AI takes root. Participants came from a range of industries and job roles. About half were from the U.S., with the rest from Germany, India, Finland, and more. I’ve also had numerous conversations over the past year with business leaders and communication experts about how generative AI is transforming workplaces.

As workers and businesses scramble to stay competitive, some are beefing up their technical skills. My research suggests that employees and companies should instead prioritize developing soft skills, especially around ethics and interpersonal communication.

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How is the World Economic Forum creating guardrails for Artificial Intelligence?

Ethics

I believe that in the future, each of us will need to become a mini “AI ethicist.” We’ll have to navigate the daily ins and outs of machine-mediated relationships with colleagues, clients, and customers, using technology effectively while preserving authenticity and trust. We’ll help our organizations confront issues like privacy and algorithmic bias and grapple with how AI impacts people’s jobs and relationships.

Our research with business leaders found that virtue, integrity, and strong moral character will be highly sought after in AI-integrated workplaces. When asked which skills will become more important in the AI age, the number one answer was integrity, with 78% of frequent AI users anticipating that this quality will grow in importance. Integrity was followed closely by other traits related to character, including strategic vision, ability to inspire others, and motivation and drive. I attribute this to a recognition that incorporating AI into the workplace requires careful oversight grounded in high moral values and interpersonal trust.

To foster trust and integrity, organizations should facilitate open conversations about AI’s ethical implications so they can establish effective policies guided by human-centered company values. Workers and leaders can consider AI issues through the lens of classical ethical frameworks, such as virtue ethics, deontology, and utilitarianism. They should acquaint themselves with responsible AI principles being created by governments, nonprofits, research centers, and industry groups, and can learn from how other organizations are addressing the ethical challenges AI brings.

Leaders should also be transparent about the ethical complexities involved in bringing AI into the workplace. They must candidly confront AI’s potential impact on employees—something that is mission critical for maintaining trust at a time when many people fear losing their jobs to machines. In my conversations with managers, they report that transparency helps team members feel confident that leaders are acting in their best interest. For instance, one manager’s company created a task force composed of employees with diverse subject-area expertise to help shape AI policy. This collaborative approach demonstrates that employees’ views are valued and factor into organizational decision-making.

Communication

I believe that the more technology mediates our day-to-day communication, the more people value genuine interactions with other humans. It may soon be common to use AI to dash off a quick email to your team. However, sensitive issues will still need to be handled face-to-face so people don’t feel like they are being passed off to a machine. The ability to navigate human interactions and foster a sense of trust and authenticity will be more valuable than ever.

While communication skills have always been important to employers, the types of skills that are valued will change. In my study, 72% of frequent AI users reported that oral communication will become more important, while 50% said that written communication will decrease in value as AI becomes better able to write in a convincingly human way. This is a shift from past research, where business leaders and HR professionals typically ranked oral and written communication skills as being of similar importance.

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While email and other forms of writing dominate our professional communication, I believe oral communication is still the best way for people to display compassion, inspiration, creativity, sincerity, vision, and other human characteristics. To develop oral communication skills, employees should focus on increasing their ability to hold deep, meaningful conversations; facilitate problem-solving discussions in meetings; and deliver less structured, more interactive presentations.

As AI handles more writing, it will be increasingly important for organizations to prioritize face-to-face and synchronous interactions as genuine experiences in which technology plays a limited role. Companies can help employees feel a sense of connection and authenticity by encouraging collaborative work and team discussions in real time.

Managers I’ve interviewed also emphasize how conversations and meetings are useful for evaluating how well employees understand and are engaged with their work. If someone can’t explain a project they’ve completed, managers increasingly suspect they relied on AI without any real understanding or oversight of what the technology was doing.

Human-centered soft skills

While many fear AI will make our workplaces soulless, my research suggests that it could actually push us to improve our human-centered soft skills. Workers and companies need to be intentional about cultivating these skills, which are often more difficult to master, harder to measure, and frequently get pushed aside in favor of technical skill sets.

If done thoughtfully, however, a renewed focus on soft skills could result in vastly improved workplaces where human connection, strong values, rich communication, and dynamic innovation abound. AI is challenging us to confront many complex workplace issues—and the possibilities for success and new opportunities are endless if we handle this with care. It’s on us to decide whether we will let AI enhance or diminish the uniquely valuable skills and connections that make us human.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Artificial IntelligenceJobs and SkillsFuture of Work
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