You may be accustomed to seeing team members in person at least some of the time, and giving feedback to colleagues or direct reports may have been one of the few things you always did in person. But we’re in a new world these days. The pandemic necessitates that many leaders and team members are staying away from the office all of the time.
In the past, it was easy to schedule lunch or an in-office meeting for a regular or pop-up feedback conversation, where you could make eye contact and evaluate body language. Now, you must rely on a phone call or video tool — but even with video, direct eye contact is not possible. Although you can see the other person, a huge amount of communication is missing. You can’t see unconscious body language, such as fidgeting, posture and hand gestures. A lot of important signals drop off when you’re not in the same room.
As a leader, you know that feedback is necessary and beneficial to your team; to you; and to your company, organization or shared enterprise. You also want happy employees who are motivated to work with you. It may be tempting to take the “easy way out” and take feedback off your to-do-list, but avoiding feedback for weeks, months or years is a direct path for making your work a lot harder. Here are seven steps to mastering remote feedback:
1. See Feedback as Your Best Solution
Instead of seeing it as a chore, see feedback as the fastest route to better business conversations with people working remotely. They will feel closer to you and not so isolated from you and the company. You are being transparent. You are coaching them. If you handle it well, you will appreciate and respect one another even more, and your employees will more likely to ask for help and stay on course for better performance.
2. Extend the Amount of Time You Spend on Clarifying Goals and Priorities
In one-on-one calls, ask team members what they’re focusing on, review their understanding of their goals and help them work through possible conflicting priorities. Make it crystal clear when goals have changed, and share new information from the management team about what is important this week.
Find out what is creating delays or problems, and have an open-minded conversation about how to proceed. If their work is impacting other team members, help them plan how they will communicate more quickly with their colleagues, or offer to facilitate a meeting.
3. Track What People Are Doing
You may wonder how you can track what employees are doing from week to week; the good news is that doing so can be part of the feedback process. Explore with them how they are handling their assignments, and offer feedback on the approaches they describe. For instance, if they are contracting with suppliers in a foreign city, ask them how that relationship is going, how they set up the arrangements with them and how they’re managing the contractors. Then, you can give some feedback, both positive and improvement feedback, on the examples they give you and how they are performing in general.
4. Ask Them to Tell Their Stories
Think about a behavioral interview question that you might ask a job candidate. Ask your employees to tell stories about a particular situation: What did they do, step by step? In the case of remote employees, use these descriptive stories like observations of their behavior. (Of course, you’ll want to have other performance parameters, including metrics and input from customers, colleagues and other managers.)
5. Offer a Feedback “Chunk” That Is Important but Not Difficult to Implement
When you start the feedback process, be authentic about what would help the two of you work toward shared goals, and explain how your employee’s current approach has impacted those goals. For example, you might say, “When you can’t send materials to customers right away, we’re finding out that they’re checking out our competitor, X.” Then, make a positive suggestion for what the employee can do to implement the change, and ask for his or her ideas too.
6. Create and Maintain Trust
Since you don’t see your team members in person and don’t have close working conditions, eye contact or informal conversations, it’s important to begin phone contact with them on a more frequent basis in order to build and maintain personal rapport. Call them to chat, and ask how they are doing in general. Listen, keep it authentic and share a bit about your own life. This approach helps to make up for a lack of face-to-face communication when it comes time to give feedback. You may notice that it requires a little more attention than when you talk to people in the hallway on a day-to-day basis, but the trust that you build will pay off.
7. Regularly Ask for Feedback From Each of Your Remote Colleagues
Allocate time to solicit your employees’ feedback, and let them know that you value their suggestions. When you receive their feedback, sit on your hands if you feel one ounce of defensiveness. Start by thanking them for the feedback, and acknowledge that it’s an important point. If you can’t think of how or why to implement their feedback (which is unlikely), tell them you want to think about it, and come up with some ideas on how to implement it before your next meeting. Avoid a quick answer that hurts your mutual trust.
Don’t let remote employees slip away and feel “out of sight, out of mind.” Send them short, frequent notes and plenty of positive messages. Call more frequently to solicit more input than usual. You will likely find that they will be happy that you are initiating increased communication. More, better feedback is your path to better relationships, better performance and — believe it or not — more fun!