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STAMFORD, Conn., November 16, 2020

Gartner Survey Reveals HR Leaders’ Number One Priority in 2021: Building Critical Skills and Competencies

The Top Enterprise-Level Business Objective is Improving Operational Excellence, While More HR Leaders are Focusing on Costs in 2021

Gartner, Inc.’s 2021 HR Priorities Survey of more than 750 HR leaders found that 68% of respondents cited building critical skills and competencies as their number one priority in 2021. The survey, conducted from June through August 2020, found the other top HR priorities for 2021 are: organizational design and change management (46%), current and future leadership bench (44%), the future of work (32%) and employee experience (28%).

“In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, HR leaders are moving away from crisis management toward focusing on what will make their organizations strong, both today and in the future, including having the right skills and competencies, building resilience and having a strong cadre of leaders,” said Mark Whittle, vice president of advisory in the Gartner HR practice.

Nearly 875 HR leaders also ranked their top business-level priorities for 2021, and 65% selected improving operational excellence. Growing the business and executing business transformations were selected by 64% and 54% of respondents, respectively. Fifty percent of HR leaders said they would focus on optimizing costs in 2021 – a 13% increase from last year.

HR leaders will need to lead the following initiatives to drive business outcomes next year:

Taking a new approach to reskilling

Organizations need to take a dynamic approach to reskilling and redeploying talent in which all impacted stakeholders work together to sense shifting skill needs and find ways to develop skills at the time of need. Currently, only 21% of HR leaders say peers share accountability or partner with HR to determine future skill needs. A dynamic approach to reskilling enables faster identification of skills needs, and employees apply 75% of the new skills they learn.

Redesigning work for responsiveness

Thirty-seven percent of HR leaders surveyed by Gartner report that their organization’s managers aren’t equipped to lead change. Further, in 2020, the amount of change that the average employee can absorb without becoming fatigued has been cut in half compared to 2019.

“HR leaders need to focus on future-forward work design that eliminates the work friction that frustrates employees today and allows employees to be responsive — in sync with customer needs, in a position to anticipate changes in those needs, and able to adapt their approach and activities accordingly,” Mr. Whittle said.  

Solving the leadership gap

More than one-third of HR leaders surveyed by Gartner report that their succession management processes don’t yield the right leaders at the right time, while only 44% of employees say they trust their organization’s leaders and managers to navigate a crisis well.

Confidence and trust in leadership is also undermined by the lack of diversity, as nearly 50% of HR leaders report that their organization’s leadership bench is not diverse. Organizations that implement diversity networking programs are 3.4 times more likely to report they are effective at increasing opportunities for talent mobility.

Identifying the future of work trends relevant to your business

The future of work is a top priority for one-third of HR leaders, however, 62% say their organization does not have an explicit future of work strategy. The COVID-19 pandemic will have a lasting effect on the future of work, accelerating certain trends — more employees working remotely, increased use of employee data — and creating new impacts, i.e. an organization can distinguish themselves as a top-tier employee brand based on their crisis response.

“The lens through which HR leaders must understand the relevance, impact and opportunity of each future of work trend for the business is critical to strategic planning and scenario planning,” said Mr. Whittle.

Driving employee experience in today’s hybrid workforce scenario

Employee experience has become an increasingly important topic across HR – 31% of Chief Human Resources Officers (CHROs) report that employee experience is a priority, as do 46% of heads of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Crafting a consistent employee experience has been made more challenging by today’s hybrid workforce, a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

HR should leverage today’s hybrid workforce model and empower managers and employees to share ownership of location decisions, so employees can switch locations dynamically based on what environment will drive productivity and engagement.

Please view the full Gartner Top HR Priorities Report for additional information.

About the Gartner HR Practice

The Gartner HR practice brings together the best relevant content approaches across Gartner to offer individual decision makers strategic business advice on the mission-critical priorities that cut across the HR function. Additional information is available at Follow news and updates from the Gartner HR practice on Twitter and LinkedIn using #GartnerHR.

About Gartner

Gartner, Inc. (NYSE: IT) delivers actionable, objective insight to executives and their teams. Our expert guidance and tools enable faster, smarter decisions and stronger performance on an organization’s mission critical priorities. To learn more, visit


Mary Baker