Rethinking leadership for a post-pandemic world

Solvay Brussels School

While leading during the COVID-19 pandemic definitely had its share of difficulties, leaders will find themselves facing new challenges as measures ease and employees return to the office.

“For many leaders, the pandemic was trial by fire for learning to manage remotely,” says Valérie Vangeel, Leadership Practice Leader at Solvay Business School – Executive Education. “Whereas the pandemic era was very much manager focused, the post-pandemic era will call for inspirational and authentic leadership.”

But this is no mean feat. According to a recent survey of Solvay Brussels School alumni, as things slowly begin to open up and teams move from home to back to the office, leaders will face a whole new set of challenges.

A little of this, a little of that 

Nobody will argue that managing remote teams was difficult. But what do you do when some of your team continues to work remotely and others return to the workplace?

“Figuring out how to lead hybrid teams will be one of the first challenges leaders face as offices reopen,” explains Vangeel.

The adaptation to a new hybrid mode will also be a huge opportunity. According to Vangeel, leaders should take advantage of this chance to rethink and even rebuild the way they work with their team. When is collaboration needed and when should work be more independent? To what extent does your team need to be in the office? When and where should work happen? Do the same rules need to apply to everyone, all of the time? 

“In the post-pandemic world, everything is on the table,” says Vangeel. 

A new breed of cohesion 

Another leadership challenge will be returning to unity following a period of increased individualism. “Discovering, or re-discovering, what the team’s purpose is will be essential to re-establishing cohesion,” notes Vangeel. “And it falls squarely on the shoulders of leaders to start their team on this journey.”

Leaders have a unique opportunity to re-create their company or team culture based on newly shared values, and then translate these into actual behaviors.

“The challenge is to do this both in a hybrid work environment and in a manner that takes into account an individual’s need for purpose,” adds Vangeel. “But this too is more of an opportunity than a challenge – an opportunity to rethink what teams stand for and what one, as an individual, brings to the team.”

A balancing act

During the pandemic lockdowns, people could either relax at home after working hours or just work, work and then work some more. “The challenge for leaders now is to figure out how to leverage this work-from-home energy, while also helping their team find balance,” notes Vangeel.

Vangeel goes on to explain how this requires more than looking towards the traditional notion of a work-life balance. “People get energy from other people, but they also get energy from focused, independent work,” she says. “With everybody’s energy mix being different, it will be a real challenge to create a hybrid work model that provides the right balance for everyone.”

The new normal is not back to normal 

When teams moved to working from home in early 2020, the command-and-control approach went out the door. But as people begin to move back to the office setting, this unruly beast may want to return too.

“It would be a real pity to go back to old command-and-control habits. Considering the amount of autonomy that people have taken over their work, I think leaders attempting to reinstate such methods will come up against a lot of resistance,” says Vangeel.

This highlights perhaps what will prove to be the biggest challenge post-pandemic: accepting that the new normal is not ‘back to normal.’ “The new normal is a hybrid in and of itself, one that takes the best of the pre-pandemic workplace and combines it with the best practices we learned while working remotely. Leaders must take concrete steps to not simply go back to what they did before,” explains Vangeel.

Authentic leadership

The challenges that leaders face today are too complex to go it alone. As such, collaboration is a must. But collaboration requires one to acknowledge their weaknesses, accept the uncertain and show their vulnerabilities – in other words, it requires one to be authentic. 

“Authenticity opens the door to inspiration. If you can inspire your team – show them that although you do not have all the answers you are confident that, together, you can face the uncertainties of the future –  you’ll be able to successfully lead them into the new normal of a post-pandemic world,” concludes Vangeel.

Vincent Degardin is a Program Manager at Solvay Executive Education (Solvay Brussels School). Here, he has gathered the thoughts of Valérie Vangeel, coach and trainer in leadership and Academic Director of the Leadership Practice at Solvay Executive Education.