On January 5, 2021, somewhere in Northeast Ohio, Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski was preparing to share potentially devastating news with his players and staff.

After struggling through losing season after losing season, the Browns were headed to the NFL playoffs for the first time in nearly 20 years. They were unquestionable underdogs, scheduled to face their bitter rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Fans had high hopes and higher expectations. The rookie head coach had forged a winning team in a single season, under all the trials and tribulations of a global pandemic. The pressure to prevail was palpable, but the team knew it could count on Stefanski.

That is, until it couldn’t.

from the other side of the TV

Stefanski broke the news that he had tested positive for COVID-19 and would not be on the sidelines for the Browns’ momentous playoff game. His positive test, along with the positive tests of five other staff members, meant the Browns would remain in COVID protocols for a third straight week.

The professional sports industry is, by default, one of the most hands-on, face-to-face productions in existence. Sure, athletes could memorize plays, practice routes and train independently or within their social bubbles, but championship teams are built on personal encouragement, measured discipline and camaraderie. Championship teams are built on teamwork.

One imagines Stefanski paced the floor a bit, wherever he was on the morning of game day. There was no guarantee his on-the-field leadership skills would successfully translate to Zoom meetings, conference calls and tele-coaching. Would uncertainty cripple this young Browns team, still building bonds and learning to trust one another?

Or did the rookie coach’s leadership style transcend those concerns — and the challenges of disparate physical proximity — to provide the lens through which the Browns would find both inspiration and motivation?

The difference between thriving and floundering during COVID-19

The global COVID-19 pandemic created chaos in more than one boardroom. It was quickly apparent that the way leaders responded to this crisis would make or break every well-plotted, carefully-predicted go-to-market strategy. Those leaders that remained attached to a linear, traditional way of how work gets done were the leaders who suffered the most, says Bronwyn Saglimbeni, communications coach, Bronwyn Communications.

“Those who really struggled over the past year are the ‘butts in seats’ leaders — the folks who were only satisfied when they saw people ‘busy’ and at their desks,” says Saglimbeni. “But the leaders who were more focused on outcomes and delivering excellence? The leaders who didn’t care how the work got done, just that it got done well? Those leaders are thriving.”

Decisionmakers quickly discovered that, while COVID-19 put the strategic challenges of running a company to the ultimate test, business leaders were facing an even greater obstacle: managing a displaced and (perhaps more alarming) anxious workforce. Suddenly and unexpectedly, nearly every company’s greatest asset – its people – was at risk.

“Leaders had to collectively let go of the old notions of ‘work’ and learn how to foster connections in one of the toughest environments imaginable,” Saglimbeni explains. “Leaders learned that excellence is only possible when we feel connected to each other and when we rally around a shared vision, bringing our best self to the task of realizing that vision.”

Bringing the change the moment calls for

Motivation plays a critical role in the success of any profession. “For athletes, motivation is so important because you must be willing to work hard in the face of fatigue, boredom, pain and the desire to do other things,” writes Jim Tayler, Ph.D., in Psychology Today. “The reason motivation is so important is that it is the only contributor to sports performance over which (the athlete) has control.”

The same holds true for the business world. “Motivation plays a critical role in employee productivity, quality and speed of work,” Elise Margol writes for Training Industry. Inspiring productivity falls apart when leaders focus too heavily on extrinsic motivation – offering a reward for productivity – and ignore intrinsic motivation – an employee’s desire to take on a task because it is personally rewarding.

As the pandemic intensified, remote work transitioned from a novelty to a banality. Successful leaders employed specific soft skills — clear and honest communication, flexibility and visible support — to lead by example. They worked to recalibrate employee focus away from the unyielding stress brought on by uncertainty in order to help them find intrinsic motivation. They learned, as Saglimbeni explains, that coaxing the best out of employees meant creating space for them to build checks and balances to manage their energy. Leaders had to let employees say “no” to what was not essential – working linear hours and forgoing family obligations – and “yes” to whatever drove them to help colleagues and the company reach its shared vision.

They had to coach people from being stifled by fear to acting with purpose.


Finding success in uncertain times

It would seem that Stefanski’s ability to inspire his team did indeed transcend the challenges of virtual practices and COVID protocols. So motivated to win, the team “never batted an eye at any of it,” according to Mike Priefer, Cleveland Browns assistant coach.

And win they did.

While Coach Stefanski watched from his home under quarantine, the Browns bested the Pittsburgh Steelers 48 to 37. It was a playoff win that stunned the entire league because of the remote leadership challenges – both mental and physical – the players and coaches faced.

After the game, Baker Mayfield, the outspoken Browns quarterback and team captain, summed it up well.

“This is a team no matter if we’re in person or not.”

leaders must remember as employees return to the office

What “normal” office life will look like once a majority of Americans receive the COVID-19 vaccine is still uncertain. Facebook, REI and Zillow, for example, told employees they could work from home indefinitely. AbbVie, JPMorgan Chase and IBM, on the other hand, are anxious to get workers back to HQ.

Most CEOs are betting on a hybrid model, according to Fortune and Deloitte survey respondents, with some employees in offices and others working remotely. The same survey found those CEOs expect 33 percent of employees to be working remotely in January 2022.

Regardless, the same leadership skills are necessary for any model. It is how leaders adapt those skills is what matters, explains Glenn Gibson, author of “Before the Mic: How to Compose Meaningful, Memorable, and Motivational Presentations.”

“Some leaders are very charismatic and lean heavily on that quality, especially when it comes to running meetings and delivering presentations,” says Gibson. “In any kind of remote situation, the ability to ‘work the room’ is neutralized. So connecting with and motivating employees requires purposeful, honest communication. Great leaders and presenters learn to focus more on what the audience needs to hear, rather than on what they want to say.”

Of course, what Gibson explains has always been the case, but remote work environments have put that message into sharper focus – and made clear which leaders buy into it.

As 2021 moves forward and return-to-work decisions are made, leaders must remember lessons learned during the shutdown and adapt them to whatever their workplace environment demands. After all, for the millions of employees who have worked alone from home offices, guest rooms and kitchen tables for the past year, even a familiar office full of familiar faces may feel decidedly unfamiliar. Great leaders will ease the transition by:

1 Exhibiting empathy and patience

Overall recovery will take time, and many employees returning to the office may still be dealing with health concerns, childcare issues and more. For some, the cadence of office life might elicit unexpected emotions, both positive and negative. Expect uneven performance and unplanned absences as employees get a new feel for the once familiar. As a leader, recognize the efforts of your workforce as they figure out how to get back on the bicycle.

2 Communicating properly

Mixed emotions will rule the early days for returning employees. During the early days of recovery, good leaders should recall the same thoughtful, transparent, regular communication that served them well during the early months of the pandemic. Decisionmakers should take questions and answer them honestly, even when the answer is “we don’t know.” This tells employees that its leadership is listening and assessing, which solidifies trust.

3 Keeping it simple

Understanding that it will take a little time for employees to acclimate to post-pandemic recovery, good leaders will emphasize simple, clear organizational goals. Complicated strategies could get lost in a sea of an employee’s personal complications and concerns.

Keeping these principles in mind and acting on them will show leadership’s commitment to doing things right, and for the right reasons. With employee trust and organizational support, even the underdogs can make a comeback into a successful, future-focused “new normal.”

“AS 2021 moves forward and return-to-work decisions are made, leaders must remember lessons learned during the shutdown and adapt them to whatever their workplace environment demands.”