Robert Glazer -- Acceleration Partners "While employees may not have known how valuable workday flexibility could be, they know now, and will gravitate to companies that can offer that freedom," says Robert Glazer of Acceleration Partners. Photo: Acceleration Partners

The past year has brought many lessons of resilience, crisis leadership and high-pressure decision-making.

Like every business, our company was rocked by uncertainty and anxiety in the early weeks of the pandemic. In addition to wrapping our heads around the consequences of the crisis and plotting a course to respond, we were acutely aware of our nearly 170 employees who were suddenly confronting existential threats to their health and careers as businesses came to a halt.  

We quickly determined that direct and frequent communication with our team would be essential to holding our organization together at a time when we needed everyone to step up. Specifically, we needed to strike the right balance between being honest about the difficulties we were facing -- along with every other business -- and ensuring our team members didn’t fall into hopelessness.

On this front, I took particular inspiration from a concept management guru Jim Collins refers to as the Stockdale Paradox, as described in his landmark leadership book “Good To Great.”

James Stockdale was a former naval officer who was held as a prisoner of war for more than seven years during the Vietnam War. Stockdale was tortured throughout his imprisonment and had little reason to believe he would eventually be released.

However, Stockdale survived nearly a decade of suffering. In an interview, Stockdale told Collins that what saved him was his ability to process the brutal facts of his situation while maintaining a steadfast, optimistic belief that he would survive and return home. He didn’t wake up each day expecting to be released, but he believed one day he would get out.

This led Collins to ask who struggled the most with the mental burden of imprisonment. Stockdale replied “Oh, it’s easy. I can tell you who didn’t make it out. It was the optimists.”

When Collins expressed incredulousness at his answer, Stockdale continued: “They were the ones who always said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ Christmas would come and it would go. And there would be another Christmas. And they died of a broken heart.”

Collins and his research team had found that each of the 11 excellent companies they studied in “Good To Great” had survived an existential crisis at some point. The leadership team in each case responded with the same psychological duality Stockdale used. They stoically accepted the brutal reality of their situation but maintained an unwavering belief that they could prevail over the enormous challenge.

This same duality guided our communications approach during the darkest moments of the Covid-19 crisis. We didn’t tell our employees that everything would certainly be fine and our business would be unaffected by the virus. We didn’t guarantee every job was safe. But we promised to do as much good for as many people as possible, committed to lean heavily on our company core values and projected confidence that we could weather the tumultuous times ahead, while communicating clearly every step of the way.

The Stockdale Paradox applies well in a crisis, but it also provides valuable lessons for leadership communications in general. Leaders and managers need to be candid when speaking to the people they lead, especially when they are sharing bad news.

This is especially true in performance management and feedback. The easiest thing to do is always to tell an employee they’re doing well, even when they aren’t -- many managers don’t know how to tell employees they need to improve, even if that improvement is necessary for them to keep their jobs long-term.

In these situations, it’s best to just be honest. If an employee is struggling, a manager should be clear about that subpar performance and try to coach the employee to be better.

Sharing difficult truths with employees isn’t easy, but hiding those realities doesn’t do anyone any good either. The worst thing leaders can do is give employees false hope in a crisis, or assure an employee that they are performing well even if they are not. As last year taught me, it’s better to follow the Stockdale Paradox -- be honest about the facts of the situation but give reasons to be optimistic.

However, the most significant business outcome from the Covid-19 pandemic may end up being how it has changed our perspective on the way we work.

Prior to March 2020, remote work was entirely new to many leaders and employees. Many employees assumed they could not be productive or fulfilled while working from home, and many leaders likewise believed their organizations’ collaboration processes, communication playbooks and even their culture could not be sustained in a remote work model. It was only after companies were forced by the pandemic to test these assumptions that people at all levels of the org chart began to see the benefits more clearly.

We discovered these benefits at Acceleration Partners a decade earlier -- though that also happened partially by chance. We operate in an industry called affiliate marketing, which is highly specialized and was especially niche when we were first expanding our business. We needed experienced account managers and simply couldn’t find them in any single urban market. We decided to hire anywhere we could find the talent, which led to a remote environment and distributed team, without many of the productivity tools we have today.

As we soon learned -- and as many companies learned last year -- working remotely offers many unique benefits to employees. In particular, I want to focus on one that companies need to pay attention to: Employees really value the flexibility they can get from working from home.

In an office, there are many constraints on our daily schedule that we’ve learned to accept. Working parents often cannot build school drop-off and pickup into their daily schedule, then come back to the office when those duties are done. Employees don’t always feel comfortable taking extended breaks for exercise or errands, even if they make up the time later. Office workers end up locked into a nine-to-five schedule, even if that routine doesn’t enable them to do their best work or live their best life.

Remote work addresses this by giving employees the flexibility to set a schedule that works for them. A working parent can start earlier to ensure they get a full day of work done before they pick up their kids from school. An employee can take an hour break for a run or a virtual workout class, without needing to figure out how they’ll get clean and presentable to return to the office. In non-pandemic times, remote workers can travel to new cities, signing in for a normal workday before exploring a new city in their free time and on weekends. Remote work unlocks all these possibilities, and the options will be greatly expanded when we finally are through the pandemic.

Employees crave this flexibility. I recently surveyed 2,000 of my readers about their remote work experience and found that 82% of them greatly value the flexibility remote work provides. That is part of why 68% of those respondents want to continue working remotely either most or all the time, and only 2% want to return to the office full time.

Offering flexibility to employees through remote work provides a competitive advantage in hiring and retaining talent. Most people like having the autonomy to work the best way for them, and the structure of an in-office workday places constraints on that flexibility. While employees may not have known how valuable workday flexibility could be, they know now, and will gravitate to companies that can offer that freedom. Businesses need to learn how to make remote work effective in their organizations and think about innovative ways to offer employees more flexibility, without hampering productivity.

(Robert Glazer is the founder and CEO of Acceleration Partners.)