The Top HR Priorities for 2021 and Beyond

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At the end of 2020, Gartner surveyed more than 800 HR professionals in 60 countries across all major industries to identify the top HR priorities for 2021 and beyond. Overall, the top five priorities for HR were identified as building critical skills and competencies (68%), organizational design and change management (46%), current and future leadership (44%), the future of work (32%), and employee experience (28%). To ensure you don’t miss out on the 2021 HR trends, and continue to leverage human resources to help your organization outperform its competitors, follow this advice.

set of random used colored pencils, symbolizing critical skills and competencies: one of the top hr priorities for 2021 and beyond

1. Building Critical Skills and Competencies

While at least a third of HR leaders agree that a lack of understanding of existing skill gaps and difficulty integrating continuing education into employee workflows may be a hindrance, nearly seven out of 10 consider growing critical skills and competencies to be the number-one priority for their department. 

For this effort to be effective, though, HR professionals cannot rely on the traditional predictive approach to skills development, which Gartner research shows amounts to employees applying only 37% of the new skills they learn.

With a dynamic, “future-forward” approach, employees are able to apply 75% of the new skills learned, which is critical in an era in which the total number of skills needed for an individual role increases 10% every year, and one third of the skills present on an average job posting one year is no longer needed at all only four years later.

The dynamic approach includes three primary elements:

  1. Anticipate and adapt to skill shifts as they occur, and empower a cross-organizational network of stakeholders who can identify and address skills as they shift in real time
  2. Abandon or decrease the use of traditional learning and development tactics like classroom training and e-learning libraries, and identify and incorporate strategies that leverage existing resources like content, people and skill adjacencies to develop new skills solutions
  3. Create channels for employees and the organization to exchange skills information for mutually beneficial and flexible skills development

For those skills that cannot be nurtured within the organization, HR professionals should continue to rely on outside recruitment — but using new tactics. 

Instead of replacing individuals by seeking similar candidates from within your network and among those attracted to the existing employee value proposition, prioritize skills, expand your network, and evolve the value proposition to appeal to changing candidate wants and needs.

orange neon sign reading "change" in cursive, representing change management: one of the top hr priorities for 2021 and beyond

2. Organizational Design and Change Management

In trying to adapt to the effects of the pandemic, many businesses have discovered that their historical focus on efficiency has created rigidity in their organizational design, workflows and networks that don’t allow them the flexibility they need in today’s fast-changing world. As a result, almost 50% of those surveyed identified organizational design and change management as the top priority for human resources. 

According to Gartner research, only 19% of HR leaders believe their workforce can effectively change direction in response to changing needs or priorities, and fewer than four in 10 think their employees know whether they’re focused on the right priorities for their clients. 

Future-forward work design is what’s needed to ensure employees can anticipate changes in needs and adapt their approach accordingly — and it’s the responsibility of HR leaders to rethink work design strategies to overcome work friction across the organization. 

To achieve this, work design must align with how work is actually done; it should not be the responsibility of employees to create processes where none exist, or create work hacks around the way their business unit is structured. 

Gartner research shows that ongoing adjustments increase workforce responsiveness by 11% and drive 11% more employees to exert high discretionary effort — and the best way for HR to ensure that regular adjustments take place is to embed them into broader ongoing talent initiatives.

To prevent teams from being overwhelmed, focus on outcomes, design work to prioritize the effort of employees toward the highest-value tasks, and be sure to clarify the desired outcomes and minimum inputs.

If resources are strapped, devolve decision making and provide frontline employees with more ownership since they often know best how resources should be allocated.

When processes are too rigid, create a policy on how processes can flex to enable more employee autonomy and ensure innovative ideas aren’t diluted by risk-averse consensus.

An Asian woman with a laptop with stickers on it, at the head of a conference table, speaking to a room full of co-workers of mixed races and ethnicities, symbolizing current and future leadership: one of the top hr priorities of 2021 and beyond

3. Current and Future Leadership

Strong leadership is especially important during times of great change, but only 44% of employees trust their organization’s leaders to navigate a crisis. 

It’s no coincidence that at a time when the demand for diversity, inclusion and equity is greater than ever, a lack of diversity tops the leadership concerns of HR leaders. 

One solution is to not only employ a diversity and inclusion expert but incorporate them in a prominent role in the greater organization; these individuals are masters in creating connections, often have the most astute insights into the fundamental changes occurring in societies and companies, and have an unparalleled ability to identify opportunity, manage risk and transform the employee and client experience.

Another is to improve the diversity of your C-suite, and to increase diversity in leadership HR must first expand diversity in the leadership pipeline and successor talent pools. To do so, partner with senior business leaders across your organization to evaluate and alter existing systems.

Instead of simply reinforcing the importance of mentoring, work directly with an employee’s manager, and their manager, to define specific roles and responsibilities for development. This enables the employee to increase their senior-level exposure, while not placing everything on their direct manager, and spreads accountability across the organization.

Rather than continuing to pull from the same talent pools, force an intentional shift in your hiring practices to identify underrepresented talent. Then, ensure the future systems can identify potential successors, as well as facilitate inclusion and equity through networks and development.

To tackle bias within your succession processes, redefine your model of who in the organization has the potential to be a successor (hint: it’s anyone), and reengineer your process to focus on the role rather than the person. 
To learn more about workplace diversity, inclusion and equity, download the Beyond Diversity ebook.

Lacking diversity? You're not alone. Many companies are not only reimagining their recruitment process but reconnecting with their employees to ensure everyone feels respected, valued, and included. Download your guide to achieving diversity.

4. The Future of Work

HR leaders are focused on the future, with 32% identifying it as a top priority for 2021. For many, the problem is that they don’t know where to start; 62% don’t have an explicit future of work strategy, and 37% struggle to adapt their talent strategies and processes with changes in their market. Plus, COVID-19 has significantly impacted the future of work, leading to new questions about post-COVID trends and how to plan for immediate and long-term adjustments like remote work, crisis management/response, and resilience.

According to Gartner, the “new imperative” is to identify future of work trends relevant to your business by, for example, screening for relevance, impact and opportunity, to enable strategic and scenario planning.

Woman in bed on her laptop, working from home, blurred out in the background, with her dog sleeping in the foreground, representing the future of work: one of the top hr priorities for 2021 and beyond

5. The Employee Experience

Nearly a third of HR leaders, as well as almost half of heads of diversity and inclusion, listed the employee experience as their top priority. Indeed, happy workers are more productive workers, and without a positive work environment workers aren’t happy. 

For historically brick-and-mortar organizations, and in organizations that did not offer work flexibility and remote work opportunities prior to the pandemic, the prospect of a future of indefinite remote work or a hybrid workforce has had what Gartner calls “huge implications,” with the “big concerns” being “how to preserve company culture with a more distributed workforce, and how to ensure employee experience evolves to keep up with employees’ expectations and needs in a changing environment.”

As Gartner explains, in “the hybrid work environment of the future,” employers, managers and employees can make location decisions together based on the understanding that the ultimate goal is for the work location to “drive the highest levels of productivity and engagement.” 

Still unsure about offering work flexibility and remote employment options, download the Redefining Remote Work ebook.

Are your employees asking to work from home more? Find out how remote work benefits staff and your business's bottom line (eBook download)

To improve employee engagement and well-being and expand career options, organizations should invest in recruiting, shifting sourcing, attraction, value proposition and employment branding strategies, as well as the following employee retainment strategies:

  1. Onboarding, implementing virtual onboarding delivery methods to reduce costs and allow for individual tailored experiences
  2. Well-being, adjusting benefits packages based on changing needs
  3. Goal setting and performance, educating managers on setting goals and measuring performance by those goals (and not observation)
  4. Total rewards, determining how compensation, rewards and recognition strategies may need to be adjusted based on differing priorities and to ensure equity
  5. Communication and collaboration, implementing effective technology solutions
  6. Talent development, rethinking talent pipelines and implementing virtual learning solutions

How to Be the Best HR Leader

A lot has changed in the talent field. The ever-younger workforce is prioritizing work flexibility and diversity and inclusion, and human resources professionals are tasked not only with recruitment and benefits but guiding staff through a global pandemic, facilitating employee engagement and strengthening culture. The era of personnel management and administrative tasks is over. To learn how to leverage HR strategy to become an HR leader at your organization, download Your Guide to Being the Best HR Leader in 2021 and Beyond.

How to Lead Through Strategic HR: Download My eBook

The MBL Difference

If you’re looking for guidance on leveraging the top HR priorities to better position HR within your organization and improve your business’s bottom line, there’s no better solution than MBL. At MBL, we are a true partner. We think of our work as building relationships, not as a business transaction. It’s our mission to learn as much about your company and its needs as possible, so we can act as your guiding force. We will share our vast network of carriers, technology and wellness providers, and more, so you can keep your employees happy, attract new talent, and boost your bottom line.

If you’re looking for guidance on attracting and retaining top talent, consult with our advisors

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