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Employee feedback within remote working

Managing staff and giving constructive feedback when working from home is essential – but what is the best approach? And which comms tools should you use? Matt Casey updates his golden rules for the new normal

SuccessionPlan

One of the biggest adjustments managers are having to make in this era of remote working relates to delivering feedback. Much of what was previously best practice, if you are to ensure this sharing of views is effective, is pretty much impossible to follow when you don’t work in the same location as your employees.

In the beforetimes, when I delivered training to managers on the dos and don’ts of feedback, these were some of the things I used to tell them.

  • Never give it over email or instant messaging, always do it face to face.
  • Discuss a behaviour the moment you observe it.
  • Don’t pass on feedback from other people; focus only on behaviours you have observed.

It’s not hard to see how this advice doesn’t really hold up to the requirements of the new normal. As it happens, I created this problem for myself a long time before the pandemic made it unavoidable. My company, DoThings, moved to a fully distributed workforce in 2019. I haven’t worked in the same building as any of my staff for a number of years now, and getting to grips with this new approach to feedback was challenging for me. The main reason for this is that when I worked in an office, I relied on organic and incidental feedback.

We would all be working together, and if I observed a behaviour that I had something to say about, I would immediately tell people. It was easy, it was non-confrontational, and it allowed me to use feedback the way I believe is best: through frequent minor adjustments.

I have always said that we should think of giving feedback as if we’re driving a car on the motorway. We don’t wait until the car veers out of the lane and then make a big adjustment, we just make constant, tiny, almost imperceptible changes to keep the car on track. This is the most effective way to handle feedback. But when working remotely, the adjustments tend to come later and be bigger. You just don’t get as many touchpoints or as much information.

When we began working remotely, my ability to get feedback from others suffered as well, because the casual conversations that used to be such a good source of information for me were no longer happening. What I found was that my previous approach, viewing feedback as an activity that was prompted by the specific events that required it, was no longer appropriate. What I also found was that my personal observations and interactions were no longer enough to keep things on track.

It had previously been possible for me to steer the behaviours of the entire group through the organic micro-adjustments I spoke of before, without much of a need for people to give feedback to one another. I would observe an interaction where one person’s behaviour had clearly had an impact on someone else, and I could give feedback on what I saw. This generally meant that people didn’t have to provide feedback between each other, as I was able to perform that role for them. Once we began working remotely, however, it was quickly apparent that I would no longer get the information necessary to continue handling things in this way. I couldn’t observe the interactions, I didn’t overhear conversations.

Even when I did observe behaviours I wanted to comment on, I found the nature of remote working made it difficult. Previously, if I’d been in a meeting with a group of people and I noticed a behaviour that I wanted to change, it was very easy for me to address it then and there, in a non-confrontational way. But being in this situation on a Zoom call just didn’t feel the same. It felt more formal, more serious and, ultimately, I found myself backing away from giving feedback in those scenarios, as I was not convinced that I could deliver it effectively in that forum.

New rules for a new situation

I gave this problem a lot of thought, because in every single terrible company I’ve ever worked for, it was possible to trace what made it terrible back to a lack of feedback. I didn’t want DoThings to turn into a workplace where nobody ever found out how their behaviour affected their co-workers, but in truth I was kind of at a loss as to how to fix it, given that all my previous golden rules were now useless to me.

In the end, the solution I discovered was simple. If I no longer had access to all the information, then I needed to engage the people who did have that information. I had to decentralise feedback.

One of the reasons why, historically, a manager has been in charge of giving feedback is that doing it well is a specific skill. If you give someone feedback badly, it can have a negative effect. So the thinking has always been that a manager who knows how to do it properly should pay attention to how someone behaves, and then give that person feedback in a constructive and sensible way. This solution made sense when the manager had easy access to the information necessary, but in the world of remote working we need to come at it from a completely different angle. The manager doesn’t have the information any more, so we now need to enable all our employees who do have it, giving them the necessary skills and tools to deliver feedback to one another.

The right tools for the job

Making this change does not require a huge shift in approach. For example, where people previously may have delivered live demos or presentations of specific work, in the remote era you can instead ask people to record and share screencasts in a dedicated Slack or Teams channel, where feedback can be shared by anyone who views it. This makes it far easier for people to watch, engage and share their feedback based on their own schedule.

To collect and share feedback on individual behaviour, you can use a project management tool such as DoThings that triggers automatic feedback requests from everyone involved, the moment the projects are completed. These feedback requests can be structured in such a way that they ensure the information gathered is useful without being confrontational, regardless of any individual’s ability to deliver effectively.

You can also grease the wheels, so to speak, by simply telling people that it’s OK to give you feedback via Slack or Teams, or whatever your preferred comms tools is. Remember, this is a new way of working. People won’t necessarily know what’s acceptable and what isn’t. When that’s the case, the default behaviour a lot of people opt for is to just do nothing, and wait and see. If you clearly communicate that you’re happy to receive feedback in whatever way works for you, that alone will make a big difference.

The simple truth of remote working is that managers will have access to far less information than they did when everyone worked together. I honestly believe this leaves us no option but to rely on technology to help us get information, and to empower the people we work with to share the information with each other.

About the author

Matt Casey is a management expert, the co-founder of DoThings.io and author of The Management Delusion: What If We’re Doing It All Wrong? (DoThings, £11.99)

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