Learning & Development, Talent

The Top Skills Organizations Will Be Looking for in 2021

As we turn the corner from 2020 into 2021, there is widespread hope that the new year will be far better than the last. 2020 saw the emergence of a worldwide pandemic and an associated economic disaster, racial and social unrest, and a divisive presidential election.

Source: Iurii Motov / Shutterstock

While there is nothing magical about January 1, 2021, relative to December 31, 2020, the fact that multiple COVID-19 vaccines have proven effective and are in the process of being widely distributed gives hope that by some point in 2021, life will return to some semblance of normalcy.

The coming year, therefore, promises to be a transitional year as the nation emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic and witnesses the first days of a new presidential administration and associated policy changes. Many workplaces will seek to return to a pre-COVID normal, while others have already acknowledged they have changed permanently.

Amid all of this transition and uncertainty, managers and training departments should be thinking about what skills and competencies are most essential for the year ahead. What better time to think about upskilling and employee growth than the start of a new year!

For this feature, we look at what skills are most in demand heading into 2021, including insights from industry experts and practitioners.

Remote Collaboration

When the pandemic emerged in early 2020, many expected the shift to remote work to last a couple of weeks—a month or 2 at most. But as we navigate through 2021, many companies are expected to remain remote through midyear, with some planning to remain so indefinitely. Companies shouldn’t just assume their staff have the skills and knowledge they need to thrive in a remote environment.

“Collaborating in-person and remotely are two different skills,” says Stanley Tate, owner and founder of Tate Law. “So many employees need to be trained separately to make them effective remote collaborators,” he says. This can include effective brainstorming sessions via Zoom or even chat collaborations via Slack.

Independent Time Management

Similarly, Tate and others point to the importance of independent time management in a remote workforce. Without the structure of the office and proximity to supervisors, some employees struggle to keep up their traditional pace and organization.

Agility and Flexibility

It’s difficult to predict what changes to expect in the future, but we can always predict that things will change. In fact, even before the pandemic, year after year, it seemed as though things were changing at an increasingly rapid pace. This rapid and rampant change requires an agile and flexible workforce comfortable with embracing new technologies, processes, and outside conditions.

“If we’ve learned anything from the disruptions of 2020, it’s that the future will belong to those who are flexible, agile, and resilient,” says John Hollon, Managing Editor at Fuel50. “Organizations that focus on both hiring for and developing those skills will not only be successful in the short run, but, also well-positioned to cope with whatever business disruptions the future may bring.”


“Studies conducted in 2017 said that the third most desired skill in the work environment for 2020 would be creativity. Now we see that they were not far from the truth, however, I think they fell short,” says Flor Varŏn of Semillas de Creatividad. “The creative people, the innovative businesses, managed to come out ahead of this totally atypical year.” But, what does 2021 have in store for us?  

Varŏn tells us: “Creativity and innovation have become indispensable for the good functioning of businesses, not only in the aspect of products and services, but also in the search for new solutions to the problems we face, new ways of working, looking for the efficiency of the teams, without losing the benefits that collaboration brings.”

Emotional Intelligence

Whether one calls it “empathy,” “soft skills,” “emotional intelligence,” or some other term, the ability to connect with, manage, and collaborate with others effectively is perhaps more critical than other skills. Not only is the nation emerging from a period of tremendous stress, but it’s also doing so with limited in-person interaction, making it even more difficult to find employees with the right soft skills to flourish in challenging times.

“Conversations about resilience and empathy are often centered on the notion that these ‘soft skills’ allow us to interact effectively and harmoniously with others, giving us the ability to step into the shoes of our coworkers and customers, have tough conversations, and reflect on our failures,” says Cecile Alper-Leroux, VP of Human Capital Innovation at UKG.

In this environment, these are essential qualities because change is a constant and transformation and uncertainty are the norm, says Alper-Leroux. In fact, she says, “These so-called soft skills will not be considered ‘soft’ in the near future—they are becoming sought-after qualities that lead to better outcomes for businesses, customers, and employees, and for leaders who maximize these capabilities to lead their teams and problem-solve with a people-first approach.”


The massive Russian hack of U.S. government and commercial organizations in late 2020 was the most notable—but is far from the only—recent cyberattack. Every day, businesses and governments face countless attacks around the country, and it’s expected these threats will only increase.

“The rise in remote and hybrid working creates a lot of security issues,” says Michael Miller, CEO of VPN Online. “Having a mixed workforce means that you need to keep them secure,” he says. “Training your distributed workforce on how to remain safe while always on the internet will be essential.”

Cybersecurity is sophisticated business. While it’s not realistic to expect all employees to become experts on cybersecurity, a basic awareness and understanding of common cyberattack strategies and precautions is a must for all employees. This is particularly true as many continue to work remotely through their own Internet connections.

Last year was a year like none other in modern remembrance. Society, the economy, and the workplace were turned upside down and inside out by a variety of factors—most notably, the global pandemic. We enter 2021 with reason to hope the new year will be somewhat more normal. However, it’s doubtful the world will ever look like it did in 2019.

With any change comes challenges but also opportunities. In an era of great change, savvy companies and training departments are looking for ways to upskill their staff to be best-positioned to take advantage of the great opportunities ahead.

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