Building employees’ critical skills and competencies will be human resources leaders’ top priority in 2022. A survey by Gartner of more than 550 HR leaders found that almost 60 percent listed critical skills and competencies at the top of their priority list for next year, ahead of organizational design and change management (48 percent), current and future leadership bench (45 percent), the future of work (42 percent) and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) (35 percent).

“The shift to hybrid work, rapidly increasing turnover and heightened war for talent, and rising pressure to make progress on DEI are driving these priorities,” says Mark Whittle, vice president of advisory in the Gartner HR practice.

Gartner recommends HR leaders structure talent management around skills, not roles. Among those it surveyed, 47 percent reported not knowing what skills gaps their current employees have, while 40 percent said they can't develop skill development solutions fast enough to meet evolving skill needs. Gartner’s data shows that new skills are replacing old ones—nearly one in three skills that were needed for a job in 2018 will not be needed by 2022—and that the average number of skills per job is increasing steadily.

“Forward-thinking HR functions are closing development gaps and creating a more adaptable workforce by adopting a skills-centric approach to talent management,” says Whittle.

More than half, 54 percent of the HR leaders that took part in the survey reported that their employees are suffering from change fatigue. Gartner says that in its own analysis, the company found that small day-to-day changes—different teammates, a new manager, small process or system shifts—are much more prevalent and 2.5 times more fatiguing to employees than big transformational changes.

“It’s death by a thousand cuts,” says Whittle. “Change fatigue is about more than just the volume of change, it’s also about the exertion and disruption of each experience.”

Employees are better able to absorb change when they have greater trust among each other, in their managers, their teammates and their leaders. Gartner found that employees with high trust have 2.6 times the capacity to absorb change. Additionally, HR must help build team cohesiveness. Teams that work well together, that listen and care for each other, produce employees with almost two times the capacity to absorb change compared to employees who work in low cohesion teams.

To be successful in today’s hybrid environment, where managers have dramatically less visibility into their employees’ day-to-day reality, empathy must be at the forefront. Gartner reports that managers who lead with empathy develop high levels of trust with their employees, create a culture of transparency and acceptance within their teams, and prioritize people over processes. They also contextualize performance and behavior—proactively asking questions and seeking information to better understand the specifics of their direct reports’ contexts. Gartner analysis shows that managers who display high levels of empathy have three times the impact on their employees’ performance than those who display low levels of empathy.

Forty-nine percent of HR leaders surveyed said they do not have an explicit future of work strategy, while one-third reported that their future of work strategy focuses exclusively on hybrid and/or remote work. Whittle says, “HR leaders need to determine which future of work trends have, and will alter, their organization’s strategic plans and what immediate and longer-term workforce adjustments are required as a result.”

Of the HR leaders surveyed, 36 percent said they struggle to hold business leaders accountable for DEI outcomes. Gartner research reveals that the progression of underrepresented talent stalls in mid-level and senior-level positions as these employees experience slower rates of promotion and worse perception of leadership potential. It suggests that achieving desired DEI outcomes will require HR to adopt a new approach that meaningfully impacts behavior and outcomes for individual leaders. This type of consequential accountability—rather than collective accountability—is based on driving equitable talent decisions, enabling leader execution of DEI goals and requiring progress on DEI goals for any leader to advance in the organization.