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Investing in social and emotional skills: a strategic plan for businesses

Caitlin M. Dermody, Harvard Graduate School of Education

From early childhood settings to corporate offices, social and emotional skills are relevant to all environments where individuals strive to thrive personally or professionally.

When designing a strategic plan, businesses face the unique challenge of accomplishing current objectives while pursuing future goals. Investing in social and emotional skills – for both adults and children – is an innovative solution for organisations seeking short- and long-term success. By prioritising social and emotional skills, businesses can strengthen their workforces and develop positive and effective workplaces.

The term ‘social and emotional skills’ represents two closely related sets of skills that shape who we are, how we manage our emotions and thoughts, how we communicate with and relate to others, and how we explore the world around us. For children, learning social and emotional skills can support academic outcomes, mental health, and peer relationships. This early foundation then strengthens social and emotional skills in adulthood, which are associated with positive outcomes such as health, life satisfaction, and employment.

The social and emotional aspects of work have become increasingly salient due to rapid technological advancements in the labour market. The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2023 lists the social and emotional skills of “curiosity and lifelong learning” and “resilience, flexibility and agility” within the top five “skills on the rise” for workers across the globe in the next five years. Moreover, interpersonal, cognitive, and self-leadership capacities were identified in a 2021 report by McKinsey as valuable for learning new technological skills and as essential for the collaborative and creative roles emerging across all sectors.

Taking a vested interest in social and emotional skills benefits employers and employees. For example, an employee’s ability to use social and emotional skills to collaborate with others offers a “comparative advantage” for both individuals and businesses in the labour market. Furthermore, employees with stronger social and emotional skills report higher levels of productivity and resilience, and leaders with social and emotional skills demonstrate greater effectiveness. While attending to the needs of the workplace is a significant first step, investing in social and emotional skills begins long before the hiring process.

To ensure that the next generations of employees are “future ready”, businesses can support the development of children’s social and emotional skills. Early childhood is the most critical time for the advancement of social and emotional skills. By investing in resources devoted to young children’s development of these skills, businesses would not only ensure the social and emotional competence of their future workforces, but also provide crucial assistance to the working parents and caregivers that they employ, as highlighted by the Centre for Early Childhood’s State of the Nation report in 2020.

In less than 20 years, the toddlers of today will be entering the workforce. How quickly might these young employees succeed if they entered workplaces that valued social and emotional skills? What new advancements might businesses make if employees arrived equipped with the resilience to learn new tasks and the acumen to contribute to a team? As businesses prepare for their next 5, 10, or 20 years of work, investing in social and emotional skills might be the most strategic plan of all.