9 leadership challenges we'll face post-pandemic (and how to overcome them)

three people are showing leadership challenges can take in different forms

From Covid-19 to racial injustices to economic instability—a lot has happened since March 2020.

The world of work, and the world as we know it, is undeniably changed. And with that comes new leadership challenges, which many have already begun to realize.  In a June 2020 McKinsey survey of more than 200 industries, two-thirds of executives said they "believe that this will be the most challenging moment in their executive career."

So how can you meet this moment? Below, we'll go over the top leadership challenges leaders and organizations can expect to face in the post-pandemic era-and how to overcome each one.

Table of contents
Top 9 leadership challenges (and how to overcome them)
How are you preparing to meet these leadership challenges?

Top 9 leadership challenges (and how to overcome them)

1. Adjusting your leadership style when a situation is in flux

As 2020 and 2021 have shown us, things change quickly. It seems like one moment, jobseekers are having trouble snagging work, and in the next, they’re the ones quitting their roles. One leadership challenge many are facing is learning which leadership style to use and when.

Solution: Situational leadership

What is situational leadership? Situational leadership puts to rest the age-old question of “which leadership style is best?” by acknowledging that how you lead must adjust according to the situation. Developed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard, the Situational Leadership Model is a flexible way of leading that consists of four distinct leadership styles:

  1. Telling - Leaders use this style as a short-term fix for when followers have inadequate experience or are intimidated by a task. It consists of the leader giving clear instructions and is intended to simply get the work done.
  2. Selling - Leaders use the selling style when followers lack experience but have high motivation for a task. It takes “telling” one step further by providing context around why the task is important and is intended to create buy-in.
  3. Participating - In a shift from telling and selling styles, the participating style lets the follower take the steering wheel. Leaders use this style when the followers have adequate experience but lack the confidence or motivation to move forward. Leaders invite a discussion by asking insightful questions that help the follower devise a solution.
  4. Delegating - The delegating style gives followers the most freedom. Leaders use this style when the follower has adequate experience and sufficient confidence to complete the task. Leaders let the follower have full control of the decision-making process, only stepping in to ask open-ended questions that can enhance their autonomy.

2. Maintaining employee engagement in remote work and hybrid teams

Another one of the leadership challenges organizations will face in a post-pandemic world is keeping employees engaged. As many people continue to work from home or shift to a hybrid work model, teams are dispersed. Without the in-person interaction, employees can lose touch with the mission of the organization and feel a lack of connection overall, leading to a lack of engagement.

Solutions:

  • One-on-ones: Even if managers don’t regularly see their direct reports in person, it’s crucial for them to carve out that one-on-one time to ensure employees don’t feel like they’ve fallen through the cracks. During one-on-ones, the manager and direct report get to talk about the things that make employee engagement happen, such as what they find interesting about their work, what they don’t like doing and how they’d like to grow professionally.  
  • Occasional in-person events: While we’ve all gotten creative with our virtual team bonding, it’s truer now than ever before: Nothing beats face-to-face interaction. Many organizations that are fully remote still schedule regular in-person events, such as annual retreats, for the sake of allowing teams to bond. This can help boost employee engagement because it can help workers feel enthusiastic again about their company, team and job.

3. Avoiding losing top talent to The Great Resignation

After a year of living in a pandemic, the Great Resignation hit us almost as hard as the layoffs that preceded them. In a turning of the tables, employees were the ones choosing to leave their jobs. Why?

  • Burnout. In 2021, Limeade surveyed 1,000 U.S. employees and found that burnout was the number one reason they left their previous jobs.
  • Desire for flexible hours and location. After about 20 months of working from home, employees are used to the benefits of being able to work remotely. Many want to be able to continue doing so, and still others want the addition of flexible work hours and schedules.
  • Concerns about paying bills. In the 2021 Mercer Inside Employee's Minds survey, being able to cover monthly expenses was the number one concern for low-wage workers (which the study categorized as those making less than $60K annually).
  • Concerns about physical health and fitness. In the Mercer survey, physical health and fitness was the number one concern for higher-wage workers (those making more than $60K a year).

Given these many challenges, how can leaders combat attrition and increase retention?

Solutions

  • Prioritize mental and physical health. We’re facing an employee burnout crisis. For nearly two years now, teams have been working from home under the ever-present threat of a virus and economic fallout. Remote work, while bringing many benefits, has also brought the disadvantage of blurred lines between home and work. It’s been a nonstop grind for many, and with travel restrictions, many haven’t taken a break for the entire pandemic. Conquering burnout remains one of the top leadership challenges as we head into 2022. How can you prioritize mental health in the workplace? Wise leaders will look to the organizations that have already done so. Some companies offer complimentary mental health counseling through their Employee Assistance Programs or via apps like Talkspace or Betterhelp. Others have instituted annual “shutdowns” where every employee unplugs from work for a week. Still others offer wellbeing coaching to give employees an extra boost as they navigate their health journey. If you’re looking for a free, easy-to-access solution, F4S offers an online personalized coaching program called Vital Wellbeing. During this eight-week program, AI-powered Coach Marlee will guide you and your team through evidence-backed tips for measuring and increasing your wellbeing, including how to manage personal boundaries, overcome self-sabotage and boost emotional resilience in trying times.
  • Offer true flexibility. Gone are the days of everyone being expected to be in the office 9-to-5, five days a week. The pandemic ushered in a new era of remote work. Even as organizations shift to a hybrid model, the goal is true flexibility. Employees want to decide when and where they do their work-whether that’s on-site three days a week or from home 100% of the time. Those deprived of that autonomy will leave for an organization that offers it.
  • Ensure pay equity. Remember, what keeps many low-wage workers (those making less than $60K a year) up at night are fears about not being able to pay their bills. They’re leaving their jobs for better compensation. To begin, consider having an outside firm conduct an audit of salaries across your entire organization. The results will help point out any unfair disparities in pay and help you correct them.

4. Ensuring innovation in a workforce that’s had to play it safe

The pandemic forced us to shift into survival mode-doing the bare minimum to stay safe and function. But as we shift out of the pandemic, how will we move from surviving to thriving?

Innovation took a hit during the Covid crisis. In a McKinsey survey published in July 2020, many companies admitted to "deprioritizing innovation" for the sake of "conserving cash and minimizing risk."

But there is good news: The McKinsey report authors write, “Crises are like adrenaline for innovation, causing barriers that once took years to overcome to evaporate in a matter of days.”

Solution: Cultivate psychological safety

So much focus for the past 20 months has been on physical safety: How can we keep our employees as safe as possible from Covid?

Now, if we want to reignite innovation in our teams, we must focus on psychological safety: How can we show our employees that it is safe for them to take risks in their work without fear of backlash for failing?

Innovation requires risk. Innovation involves failure. But if your team is too afraid of being punished for not succeeding when they’ve tried their best at a laudable goal-you will never achieve innovation.

5. Developing emotional intelligence

Hard skills have long been valued (with good reason), but the pandemic highlighted the equally important soft skills, such as emotional intelligence. During a time of such emotional turmoil, leaders with a high EQ were better able to recognize, respond to and manage the emotions in themselves and others. Leaders who lacked the EQ, however, struggled to find their footing and bolster their team during such a stressful period.

Solution: Emotional intelligence coaching

Coaching can be an effective method for uncovering strengths and blind spots and working toward a goal with built-in accountability.

F4S offers emotional intelligence coaching based on more than 20 years of research. In our online program Increase EQ, you’ll receive personalized coaching from our AI-powered Coach Marlee. You'll learn about emotional intelligence, how to become more aware of your own feelings and how to read emotions in others. These skills will prove helpful during times of crisis and calm.

6. Destigmatizing mental health

The pandemic has taken a toll on mental health, an area that was already often neglected by employers. Now, as it rightfully takes its place in the spotlight, leaders are scrambling to figure out how to support their employees’ mental health needs.

Solutions:

  • Emphasize that sick days are for mental health, too. It’s interesting that “mental health days” are becoming more and more popular because its very wording may unintentionally undermine the goal of destigmatizing mental health conditions. Mental health is just as important as physical health. Someone going through a depressive episode deserves a day off just as much as someone experiencing a Crohn’s flare-up. Both should feel free to take a sick day.
  • Lead by example. As a leader, you set the standard others will follow. If you say you want to destigmatize mental health but continue to shut down conversation about it or fail to talk about it at all, you send the message that it’s a taboo subject.

Think about your language and your communication. At the start of team check-ins, for example, you could lead a mental health check-in. This doesn’t have to be anything formal and is certainly not diagnostic. The goal is to simply create a culture where it’s normal to talk about mental health. For example, you might open with an icebreaker where everyone gets to state one thing they’re anxious about and one thing they’re grateful for. And then you kick it off, making your team feel safer to be open about what they’re anxious about.

7. Committing to a true work-life balance

Because of the pandemic, people need to reclaim work-life balance. Both remote and hybrid workers often end up working more than they did when they worked 100% on-site, simply because there aren’t clear boundaries when they work from home.

Solutions

  • Establishing boundaries - Your organization needs to make it clear when a person is expected to be online/working and when they are not. For example, you might make a policy that no one responds to messages after 6 p.m. local time. It’s also useful to create a response policy, such as, “responses are expected within 24 hours.” That way, no one feels pressured to reply to an email instantly.
  • Encouraging time off - Does your organization really promote work-life balance if half of your employees haven’t taken a vacation in two years? And I mean a real vacation: one in which they completely disconnect from their work. If you want your employees to avoid burnout and have a work-life balance, drive home the point that vacation time is essential. It allows people to recharge and come back to work stronger than ever. Some companies have gone so far as to make vacations mandatory. In an interesting experiment reported in the Harvard Business Review, global aviation strategy firm SimpliFlying forced its employees to take one week off of work every seven weeks.

The results? After 12 weeks, managers rated employee creativity as 33% higher, happiness levels as 25% higher and productivity as 13% higher than before the experiment.

8. Preserving company and team culture among hybrid and remote teams

Maintaining culture is one of the biggest leadership challenges organizations are facing. As more and more switch to hybrid, managers worry about how they’ll safeguard their culture and avoid creating factions in teams that are split between work-from-home and on-site.

Solutions

  • Virtual team building

Creating challenging and fun events that can be done online is one way to align your team and preserve company culture, even while you’re far apart. Things like Zoom happy hours and virtual pub quizzes have become staples of pandemic work life, but feel free to mix it up and get creative. To prevent team building from becoming just another stressor added to their workload, though, keep virtual team building activities optional and consider paying employees who do choose to participate. Want an evidence-based way to form bonds among your team members? We offer a free online coaching program called Team Building. In this nine-week program, AI-powered Coach Marlee will help you uncover your team's mission, discover members' different communication styles, define your team values and more-all to help drive team cohesion.

  • In-person retreats

You’ll, of course, need to weigh the risks of gathering in person during a pandemic with the benefits.

SessionLab, which was always fully remote, ran a hybrid retreat in 2021 where some of its employees gathered in Croatia, and others joined virtually. The teams focused on defining core values, aligning on team culture and team building-the things that co-founder Robert Cserti writes are "hardest to do online."

9. Preparing for the next crisis

Sorry if it seems too soon to be talking about the “next” crisis before we’ve even gotten out of this one-but hear me out: Life is filled with wonderful, beautiful things, and it is filled with unexpected, difficult things too. One of the greatest leadership challenges is being prepared to lead through good times and bad.

Solutions:

  • Leadership development programs

Leadership development programs recruit top talent and prepare them for their roles as the next leaders of the organization. When these programs work well, it’s because they anticipate organizational needs and invest the time and resources into future leaders who will fill the pipeline.

For all of us, the pandemic was a time of great stress but also great learning. The lessons we learned the hard way can be taught to tomorrow’s leaders to prepare them for the next crisis. If you already have a leadership development program in place, select senior executives who could serve as mentors. Also, consider what you wish your leadership teams had known before the pandemic started, the skills you wished they’d focused on more. Teach these skills to the program participants.

  • Change management skills

Change management involves the skills needed to lead a team through a significant change. Crises, like a global pandemic, have the ingredients to effect a sudden change in an organization. So having change management skills at hand can help you prepare to stabilize and motivate your team through a crisis.

These include skills like resilience, trust-building and follow-through. Need help building your change management skills? We’ve got a personalized coaching program available for free that does just that. In Big Picture Thinker, Coach Marlee will guide you through how to zoom out in times of crisis to look at the bigger picture and get comfortable with ambiguity. Having this perspective will help you lead your team through tough times without getting overwhelmed.

How are you preparing to meet these leadership challenges?

Leadership challenges have always existed. But in a post-pandemic world, they’ll look a little different. With a workforce that’s seen unbelievable change in the past 20 months amid growing financial and personal pressures, leaders are going to need a new set of tools to ensure employees are set up to excel.

Thankfully, those tools are at your fingertips. Technology like our AI-powered Coach Marlee app has made coaching accessible to all.

So if you need support as you tackle these leadership challenges, sign up for our free, personalized coaching today.

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