Communicating in the digital age: Essential skills for success in the 21st century workplace

To succeed in today’s workplace, young people need more than basic reading and
math skills. They need substantial content knowledge and information technology skills;
advanced thinking skills, flexibility to adapt to change; and interpersonal skills to succeed in multi-cultural, cross-functional teams. –
Willard Marriott.

In today’s globalised and complicated world, the demand for highly skilled workers has increased exponentially. We live in a highly connected digital environment that is fast-paced and competitive. Information technology provides unmatched mobility and connects individuals anytime anywhere across the globe. Today, people communicate using multiple electronic devices and access information stored in remote locations, “in the cloud.” As a result of the mobility and instant access, a lot of workers are now expected to be available practically around the clock and respond quickly to issues.

Most organisations have recognised the power of social media networks and have engaged their customers and other stakeholders where they meet online.  Communication is no longer one-way; rather, electronic media have empowered the public to participate and be heard.  The question one should ask then is, what skills will a worker need to survive. For young graduates, how can they stand out, especially when the competition is keen.

In a world that is increasingly becoming complex, networked, and mobile, communication skills matter more than ever.  Such skills are particularly essential due to the competitiveness of the limited jobs available.  The ability to standout is largely dependent on a person’s exceptional communication skills.

Whether you are a young graduate entering the workplace or already working, your ability to communicate effectively is one of the fastest ways to ensure your career success. Strong communication skills will make you marketable even in tough economic climate. For one seeking a job, superior communication skills will give you an edge over other job applicants. Research, over the years, have consistently shown that strong communication skills are essential to effective job placement, work performance, career advancement, and organisational success.  In making hiring decisions, employers often rank communication skills among the most desirable competencies.

Unfortunately, a lot of people mistake communication skills to mean the ability to speak well. This is, however, not the case. When we talk about communication skills we are simply referring to reading, speaking, listening, and writing skills. These skills are essential to succeed in today’s workplace. We will look at a few of these skills in this article.

Why writing skills matter more than ever

People in today’s workplace communicate more, not less, since information technology and the internet have transformed the workplace.  Messages now travel instantly to distant locations, reaching potentially huge audiences with a minimum of expense and effort. Work team members collaborate even when they are physically apart. Moreover, social media are playing an increasingly promising role in business.

In such a highly connected environment, writing becomes more crucial. Gone are the days when business was mostly conducted face-to-face and when secretaries corrected spelling and grammar for their bosses. Even though interpersonal skills is still important, writing effectively is critical.  Thanks to the digital revolution, most workers now write their own messages. Digital media requires more written communication, and workers’ skills are always on display.

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Currently, employers seek employees with a broader range of skills and higher levels of knowledge in their field than in the past. Unfortunately, many are not able to deliver. Evidence available show that today’s graduate are light-years ahead when it comes to computer know-how. However, the long hours they spend instant messaging could be hampering important career skills. Tech-savvy youth have become experts at sending cryptic text messages at rapid-fire speed. Unfortunately, prolonged use of electronic communication appear to have led to the erosion of solid writing and speaking abilities.

Some people, especially those technical fields, also tend to have the misconception that  communication is not for them since they deal with figures and other technical stuff. Notwithstanding, even in the technical fields such as accounting, finance and information technology, people still need strong communication skills. Technical experts must be able to communicate with others and explain their work clearly.

Writing skills, which were always a career advantage, are now a necessity. The ability to write opens doors to professional employment. People who cannot write and communicate clearly will not be hired. If already working, they are unlikely to last long enough to be considered for promotion.

Regardless of career choice, you will be sending digital messages such as emails, e-newsletters etc. Because electronic mail and other digital media have become important channels of communication in today’s workplace, all digital business messages must be clear, concise, and professional. Developing your writing skills is thus a necessity.

Professionalism: what employers want

Apart from writing skills, employers also expect their workers to behave professionally on the job and possess what is generally referred to as ‘soft skills’- sometimes called employability skills or key competencies,  in addition to technical knowledge.  Soft skills are essential in career attributions that include the ability to communicate, work well with others, solve problems, make ethical decisions, and appreciate diversity.

Behaviours such as not devoting your full time to the job -even when things are slow; sending messages with incomplete sentences, misspelt words; sloppy messages, using electronics during business meetings for unrelated purposes; raising your voice; sending and receiving text messages during meetings; allowing texting to interrupt face-to-face conversations  are regarded as unprofessional in the workplace.  Projecting and maintaining a professional image can make a real difference in helping a person obtain a job.

Thinking critically

For one to succeed in the 21st century workplace, a person must have effective decision making skills. Jobs that require thinking, brainpower, and decision-making skills are likely to remain plentiful. Regardless of the sector an individual works in, the ability to think critically, make decisions, and communicate those decisions is what will make people successful in their jobs. Management and employees work together in such areas as product development, quality control, and customer satisfaction.

All workers, from executives to subordinates, need to think creatively and critically.  As a worker, you should be able to supply good ideas and demonstrate that you can think critically. This means having opinions that are backed by reason and evidence. There are three main steps when making a decision. The first is to understand the nature of the problem secondly, you must generate and select the most feasible ideas. The final step is to refine, justify, and implement the solution.

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Developing your listening skills

In an age that thrives on information and communication technology, listening is an important skill. Listening is an essential aspect of the communication process. unfortunately, most people are not very good at listening while others mistake hearing for listening. We can all hear, but not everyone listens.

For instance, do you ever pretend to be listening when you are not? Do you know how to look attentive when your mind wanders far away? Do you ‘tune out’ people when their ideas are boring or complex? Do you find it hard to focus on ideas when a speaker’s clothing or mannerisms are unusual? You probably acknowledged two or more of these questions because many of us have poor listening habits. Research suggests that our ability to listen well is only 25 to 50 percent.

In the world of work, poor listening habits can be costly and affect professional relationships. To be successful in your job, you must develop a better listening skill. Developing your listening skills include, controlling your surroundings, developing a receptive mind-set, keeping an open mind, listening for main points, listening between the lines,  providing feedback, and judging ideas, not appearances.

The first step though is to stop talking. Let others explain their views, learn to concentrate on what the speaker is saying, not on what your next comment will be. In effect, when you listen, you do so with your mind and your heart.

Improving your nonverbal communication skills

One of the cardinal axioms of communication is that “words have no meaning; meanings are in the people.” This aptly expresses the essence of nonverbal communication. Understanding messages often involves more than merely listening. Nonverbal cues, in fact, can speak louder than words.

These include eye contact, facial expression, body movements, time, space, territory, and appearance. Nonverbal cues affect the interpretation of a message by the receiver.  Nonverbal communication refers to all forms of unwritten and unspoken messages, whether intended or not. Interpreting nonverbal cues are however, not that simple. Messages are even harder to interpret when the verbal and nonverbal cues do not sync. In such situations, people are likely to believe the nonverbal cues than your words.  Successful communicators recognize the power of nonverbal messages.

Cues broadcast by body language might be helpful in understanding the feelings and attitudes of senders. It is unwise, however, to attach specific meanings to gestures or actions because behaviour and its interpretations strongly depend on context and on one’s cultural background.

Succeeding in the challenging interconnected world of work depends on many factors, some of which you cannot control. However, one factor that you do control is how well you communicate. No one is born with the abilities to read, listen, speak, and write effectively. These skills are learnet.

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