Kaitlin Ugolik Phillips: “NEED FOR SOFTER SKILLS”

NEED FOR SOFTER SKILLS. Emotional intelligence, empathy, compassion, creativity, and communication skills have always been important, but they’re rising to the top of the priority list. They’re vital for remote work — we need to respect boundaries, work collaboratively from afar, and during a pandemic or not, keep in mind the struggles everyone is going through. Soft […]

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NEED FOR SOFTER SKILLS. Emotional intelligence, empathy, compassion, creativity, and communication skills have always been important, but they’re rising to the top of the priority list. They’re vital for remote work — we need to respect boundaries, work collaboratively from afar, and during a pandemic or not, keep in mind the struggles everyone is going through. Soft skills are critical for customer service and user experience — this gets talked about when it comes to design, but not enough in other parts of service and experience; it’s not just about a customer or user feeling like they spent their money well, they also need to feel safe and understood. And people are tired of working for bosses who don’t care about them or their lives outside the office.


There have been major disruptions in recent years that promise to change the very nature of work. From the ongoing shifts caused by the COVID19 pandemic, the impacts caused by automation, and other possible disruptions to the status quo, many wonder what the future holds in terms of employment. For example, a report by the McKinsey Global Institute that estimated automation will eliminate 73 million jobs by 2030.

To address this open question, we reached out to successful leaders in business, government, and labor, as well as thought leaders about the future of work to glean their insights and predictions on the future of work and the workplace.

As a part of this interview series called “Preparing For The Future Of Work”, we had the pleasure to interview author Kaitlin Ugolik Phillips.

Kaitlin is a writer, editor and communications professional living in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her book, ‘The Future of Feeling: Building Empathy in a Tech Obsessed World’ is a news week ‘must read’ about the relationship between empathy and tech, and how tech impacts our relationship with each other.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers like to get an idea of who you are and where you came from. Can you tell us a bit about your background? Where do you come from? What are the life experiences that most shaped your current self?

What a great way to ask that question! I think the life experience that has most shaped my current self might be all the storytelling I did as a child. I wrote mini novels and poems and songs like a lot of kids do, and I also wrote pretend newspaper articles, and even… though I cringe about it now… memoir-style essays before I had much of a life to write about!

When I was in high school and college in North Carolina, the most logical way to make writing into a career was to become a journalist. I started a newspaper at my high school and had several internships at local papers in high school and college. I majored in journalism at Elon University, and later I even went to graduate school for journalism at Columbia in New York. That was a big deal for me — moving to New York City by myself after only having visited there a few times as a kid. It seemed like the obvious next step at the time, and I felt like I would regret declining an offer to get an Ivy League graduate degree. Unfortunately, this was all around the time of the 2008 financial crisis, which sped up the existing resource crisis in news media. Needless to say, I did not get the dream newspaper or radio reporting job I’d hoped for!

I ended up writing about law and finance for a while at several publications in New York. It was great experience, but the human aspect of storytelling that brought me to journalism was missing for me in that work. So after about six years I transitioned to nonprofit communications to pay my bills (mostly student loans, of course). That allowed me to use my writing and editing skills in service of things I cared about without the stress of daily deadlines. It also cleared space in my schedule and in my head to work on my own creative projects, like the one that eventually became my book, The Future of Feeling.

The book is about the impact that tech (especially social technology) has on our ability to empathize with one another, and how we can use empathy to make better tech in the future. It was inspired by my own experiences growing up online and seeing how the digital world affected relationships and communities. I wanted to know if anyone was working on solutions, since tech was only going to keep advancing in the future. I couldn’t find a book to read about that, so I wrote one.

What do you expect to be the major disruptions for employers in the next 10–15 years? How should employers pivot to adapt to these disruptions?

Automation is of course a huge one, especially in manufacturing and other sectors that employ what is sometimes referred to as “unskilled labor.” But what these so-called “unskilled” people have that automated systems do not is their humanity, their so-called “soft” skills, which I think will become increasingly important.

Climate change is also going to be a major disruption for employers. It’s going to impact where people want to live and the kind of work that can be done in different places. As we have seen already to a certain extent, younger generations want to care about the mission of any company they work for, and they also have less patience for the “this is how we’ve always done things” attitude when it comes to hierarchies, family leave policies, working from home, etc.

The choice as to whether or not a young person should pursue a college degree was once a “no-brainer”. But with the existence of many high profile millionaires (and billionaires) who did not earn degrees, as well as the fact that many graduates are saddled with crushing student loan debt and unable to find jobs it has become a much more complex question. What advice would you give to young adults considering whether or not to go to college?

I love this question, and I’ve been thinking about it as my husband and I start an education savings fund for our daughter. We asked ourselves — will college even be a thing in 2039?? I’m not sure about that, but my best advice for current teens considering college is to go to a community college or a state school. Looking back now, though I got a great education at two private institutions, I don’t think it was “better” than taking another, perhaps slower, definitely less expensive route. It was just different, and I encourage young people to remember there is not only one way to do life.

Despite the doom and gloom predictions, there are, and likely still will be, jobs available. How do you see job seekers having to change their approaches to finding not only employment, but employment that fits their talents and interests?

Prioritize and emphasize your soft skills, and look for companies or organizations that will value them. These are things like time management, teamwork, creativity, and also empathy, compassion, kindness, and conflict resolution. If your talents lie elsewhere, think about the soft skills that are relevant to them, and brush up. For example, maybe you’re a really talented coder and you want to work on a development team. In addition to describing your “hard” coding skills, highlight the things you know or do that keep humans at the center of your work. Do you care a lot about user experience? Do you want to make sure a diverse team is developing an app or game so that many experiences can be imagined and planned for? You might not even see these “soft” things as skills, but they’re vital, especially as tech becomes increasingly integrated into people’s lives.

As you apply for jobs, rather than using buzzwords in your cover letters and LinkedIn profile, try telling (short) stories that illustrate your interpersonal and emotional skills. Organizations are (finally!) starting to understand that these are not just valuable but vital in every sector, regardless of whether your position requires in-person interaction.

The statistics of artificial intelligence and automation eliminating millions of jobs, appears frightening to some. For example, Walmart aims to eliminate cashiers altogether and Dominos is instituting pizza delivery via driverless vehicles. How should people plan their careers such that they can hedge their bets against being replaced by automation or robots?

Some philosophers imagine that if humans don’t need to do difficult, low-paying jobs like Walmart cashier and Dominos delivery driver, all human jobs will be better and our lives more equitable. It’s a nice thought, and as a bit of a tech optimist I like to think it’s possible. But considering how improbable it is, at least in the near future, my advice is twofold:

  1. Try to be the human managing the robots. Someone has to create, manage, troubleshoot, and update technology. At least until the robots learn to control themselves…
  2. Exercise those “soft skill” muscles — they’re what sets us apart from the robots! Think about work that requires empathy, understanding, or creative problem solving. Plan to really build on those kinds of skills through professional development and strategic planning. These are things AI may be able to do at some point, but not likely at the scale needed in medicine, law, journalism, social work, public health, city planning, and many other fields.

Technological advances and pandemic restrictions hastened the move to working from home. Do you see this trend continuing? Why or why not?

I think companies that took it seriously and provided employees with the needed resources will continue remote or hybrid work. Unfortunately, I think some industries just aren’t ready to make this change permanent, despite so much evidence that folks are just as productive at home (if not more so). This is another place where empathy comes in: where it worked, leaders saw this as an opportunity to really build empathy for their employees and make policy changes based on what they learned about their experiences. Where it didn’t work, I’m afraid the issues are deeper.

What societal changes do you foresee as necessary to support the fundamental changes to work?

Whether we’re talking about automation, remote or hybrid work, climate change, or other changes facing the way we work, it’s time to address care leave and child care with more than lip service. People have families, and they often need to care for their families. That’s it. Replace all people with robots so no one needs leave or child care? It may be a less-than-impossible dystopia, but if we want to work with reality, we need to support humans being humans. I think the pandemic made this clearer than ever. Call it empathy, call it flexibility, call it whatever you want, but we need more accessible and affordable child care and we need to make it not just acceptable, but expected, for folks to take time away from work to care for their families. I think we’ve spent a lot of time waiting to see how the private sector would handle this, and if things don’t change after this pandemic, that’s a pretty clear sign we may need legislative action or some other kind of public policy.

I also don’t want to miss an opportunity to talk about early childhood education, especially social emotional learning. Those soft skills I’ve been mentioning throughout this interview develop in childhood and can be encouraged and honed at school. I think real movement on this will require a departure from the hustle culture we now see even in elementary schools.

What changes do you think will be the most difficult for employers to accept? What changes do you think will be the most difficult for employees to accept?

I think many employers will have a hard time accepting the cost of doing better when it comes to family leave and child care. Some may also continue to struggle with accepting hybrid work. Employees who have spent a lot of time focusing on “hard” skills may struggle to adapt to a world that increasingly prioritizes the “soft” ones.

The COVID-19 pandemic helped highlight the inadequate social safety net that many workers at all pay levels have. Is this something that you think should be addressed? In your opinion how should this be addressed?

Absolutely. I talked about this a bit earlier, but this must be addressed. I personally do a lot of communications work in the local health policy world, and I see a lot of promise there, but local law- and policy-makers can only do so much when these are systemic problems in our culture. No-questions-asked PTO days, days off for voting, flexible work schedules, and similar accommodations can help make up for some safety net gaps, but I think it’s a problem that we rely so much on the private sector to “give” us these things as employees.

Despite all that we have said earlier, what is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?

I have had the pleasure of interviewing and editing the work of some extremely bright and creative young people. I feel really optimistic about the world they envision. They are not naïve about the problems they face — in work or elsewhere — but they are not giving up.

At the same time, I’ve seen major, established companies start to think differently in recent months. I did an interview for an internal news service at Samsung and I was so happy that the company seemed to be looking for ways to incorporate institutional knowledge with new ideas.

Historically, major disruptions to the status quo in employment, particularly disruptions that result in fewer jobs, are temporary with new jobs replacing the jobs lost. Unfortunately, there has often been a gap between the job losses and the growth of new jobs. What do you think we can do to reduce the length of this gap?

Wow, this is a tough one. I think this is something we will hear more political candidates talk about in upcoming elections. Thinking broadly, it could be helpful to devote significant resources to retraining, especially when thinking about something like renewable energy jobs replacing coal jobs, for example. Investing in entrepreneurs in emerging sectors is also a smart idea. At the local level I know there are groups aimed to place-based investing and community-based investing, where philanthropies and others target resources to a specific city, for example, or minority-owned small businesses. That kind of support could help close the job gap.

Okay, wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Watch In the Future of Work?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. NEED FOR SOFTER SKILLS. Emotional intelligence, empathy, compassion, creativity, and communication skills have always been important, but they’re rising to the top of the priority list. They’re vital for remote work — we need to respect boundaries, work collaboratively from afar, and during a pandemic or not, keep in mind the struggles everyone is going through. Soft skills are critical for customer service and user experience — this gets talked about when it comes to design, but not enough in other parts of service and experience; it’s not just about a customer or user feeling like they spent their money well, they also need to feel safe and understood. And people are tired of working for bosses who don’t care about them or their lives outside the office.
  2. CHIEF EMPATHY OFFICERS. Companies are increasingly adding “empathy” to the job description of those in the C Suite, because it helps retain employees, promote inclusivity and diversity, and model flexibility. It will be interesting to see whether the “chief empathy officer” becomes more than an intriguing play on words.
  3. VIRTUAL WORKSPACES. Working remotely is one thing, but what about working in a virtual world? Facebook is among companies playing around with this idea of working in virtual reality. Members of a team or company can be “together” while remaining distanced. The cost of startup for something like this is high, and it’s not yet clear whether it’s effective.
  4. WORK AS A DRIVER OF HEALTH. Public health researchers have learned that about 70% of our health comes from factors outside of our health behaviors. Now the goal is to get people in other areas of life that drive our health to commit to improving it. That will include schools, local governments, and yes, workplaces. Work can impact health via insurance and health care access, stress level, physical proximity to contaminants, and in many other ways. We’ll see creative solutions as this idea becomes more mainstream and the research continues.
  5. MORE CHAIRS AT THE TABLE. Diversity and inclusion have been “trends” for a while, but there appears to be a shift toward making them more of a priority. One word I’m hearing more is equity, which is not the same as equality. A baby and an adult may both need a seatbelt in a car, but we don’t give them the exact same one — the belts and seats are designed specifically for big or small bodies. That’s equity — taking into account those different needs. This is happening more at companies and organizations, and sometimes it starts with adding more seats to the decision-making table to include a more diverse range of experiences.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how this quote has shaped your perspective?

I really love the lyricist and singer Scott Hutchison, who sadly passed away in 2018. He wrote a song called Head Rolls Off with the lyrics, “While I’m alive, I’ll make tiny changes to Earth,” and it’s been kind of a driving force for me for more than a decade. I even have “make tiny changes” tattooed on my arm!

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I would love to meet and talk to Brene Brown. I think our work is complementary in many ways, and I know I could learn so much from her. I also love using her animated video about empathy vs. sympathy when I do a talk — it makes people feel comfortable and sets the stage for talking about emotional intelligence in such a fun way.

Our readers often like to follow our interview subjects’ careers. How can they further follow your work online?

You can follow me on Twitter @kaitlinugolik and see my work (and sign up for my free newsletter!) at kaitlinugolik.com.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success and good health.

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