The Benefit of Intentional Feedback in a Remote-Control Work Environment
By: Jamin Ferner
I spoke with a friend of mine the other day about some of the difficulties of working in a remote work environment, and he shared a story about an employee who was struggling. They were showing up to required meetings, but the work was just not there. After digging in deeper it appeared that there were likely substance abuse issues, and an increasing distance in communication.
As it turns out, substance abuse as well as mental health issues have become more prevalent during the work-day amid the pandemic. And, this “new normal” affects the way we provide feedback, the way we hold others accountable for their work, and the way we coach.
I like feedback. In a prior role, at a large tech company I worked for, we divided feedback simply into only 4 categories; Positive Specific, Negative Specific, General Positive, and General Negative.
General feedback tends to be consistently ineffective
Even if it is positive, you can tell someone that they “did great” in a presentation and it can be wildly misunderstood. They felt they did great because they were funny and engaging, while you thought they did great because they were loud enough for everyone to hear. Negative, general feedback can be just as ineffective.
Feedback should be delivered quickly, specifically and should be behavior based
In the past when the norm was working on-site, this was much easier because I knew I would see someone shortly after a meeting or be able to pull them aside for a quick couple of minutes. Challenges now exist with meetings in a virtual work environment when an event occurs, or someone says something that requires followed-up.
It might not be serious, perhaps just a chance for coaching. But I’ve observed the behavior, so I feel I should be the one to follow-up with that feedback. The additional challenge might be that I then have back-to-back virtual meetings that follow that meeting. After that, the individual may no longer be contactable for the remainder of the day, or I have other work that needs to be completed by end of day without a chance to offer feedback or coaching. The feedback may not be delivered quickly enough or may not be able to occur until several days later after when I have “scheduled another meeting with that employee.” This delay can cause an employee to become anxious while they wait to hear why you need to meet with them, or it can also make the feedback completely useless. Because of the delay, they may remember it the occurrence differently, or not remember it at all.
Being extremely intentional
These challenges can make it difficult for managers to shed old habits when delivering feedback. Specifically, being extremely intentional. One option that I find has worked is saying to someone, hey “name”, could you stay on the line with me just for a minute, I wanted to review something with you. Another is to immediately text or email someone asking for a specific time that same day.
The virtual environment has provided other challenges as well
Much like students, some people and personalities thrive in a virtual environment. Those who thrive talk about not having a commute, not having to worry about what to wear, or even if they must wear pants at all. They feel comfortable at home and can move right into a desk and phone that they feel comfortable at. Those who find it more difficult talk about not having others to talk to, not having a separation of work and home, and many distractions from a TV to a bed. It can be difficult because there is no sense of accountability to coworkers for not eating one more piece of chocolate, or in some cases, not consuming alcoholic or a recreational drug during the work day. In many cases this can provide a more difficult environment for getting things done, and on the HR/Managerial side, provides new challenges.
Looking for signs as we interact and frequency of communication
As managers and HR, we need to consistently look for signs as we interact with employees. Does the employee show up late to meetings, even virtual ones? Are they wearing the same clothes (although in this post pandemic world, this may not always be a sign of anything!). Do they frequently have their camera off? Do they participate only minimally and quickly sign off? Are they available and flexible to meet? It can also be telling what time you are receiving emails from employees. If it is throughout the night and weekends, it could show a pattern of poor sleep.
One thing I have found helps from a distance is frequency of communication. I was once told by a coworker, Like Mad Libs, we tend to fill in the blanks when we don’t know what is going on with someone. We make things up, and the stories are often fantastical. I have heard that a person got a new job, or was possibly in the hospital, when they didn’t show up for a meeting. We make things up because it is often much more immediate and interesting than the truth. I have found that the best way to avoid others making up stories, is to simply follow up with the person, and increase communication. Not necessarily for accountability, but frequent “temp checks,” help with connection. We often need to make sure we have people following up with others, and asking about goals, accomplishments, what they are proud of, or/and just how they are doing?
As HR Professionals and Managers our role, of course, is to really listen. We can recognize when someone is looking elsewhere, or texting, or must be asked a question multiple times. And guess what, employees can see the same things in me.
Virtual world…the great equalizer
While giving feedback virtually continues to be a challenge, the times that I have set up calls, specifically for coaching, have mostly gone well. This is one area that I feel having physical distance can be helpful. It becomes a circumstance where both of you are very comfortable in the environment of your own, and both of you are on equal ground. There is no desk in between you, and no office you must report to. I am 6 feet 5 inches, which I’m aware can cause an unintended perceived power advantage. When I used to talk with an upset customer, I would do my best to move to meet their eye level, so this physical perceived advantage was removed.
On a call with a doctor who we had partnered with in our business, I asked how it was going in the virtual world. She told me that she misses walking down the hall with her patients because it gave them a chance to have a physical connection and build comradery before they met together. She told me that she is a little over 4 feet tall, so it was a good way to break the ice. She and I had worked together for over a year at that point, and I had no idea how tall she was because we had never met in person. Virtual, in a few different ways, is the great equalizer.
In this new environment we continue to grow and learn daily, and I believe one of the best things we can do is to share what works in our environments. Every story or best practice we share is another way for us to learn together in a world-story that in so many ways is being rewritten.
About the Author
Jamin Ferner is an Executive Healthcare Solutions Strategist, specifically working with mental health, diversity and resolving large medical spends. After working 6 years for Apple as a senior manager and then Access HealthNet, Jamin now is Chief People Officer at wire.health offering comprehensive, innovative healthcare for the mind and body. Wire Health is a pioneer in delivering value-based care solutions and a driver of positive healthcare change for business. Jamin earned his Masters of Science at Drexel University,
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 “Substance Abuse Got Worse Amid the Pandemic and Remote Work: Use of recreational drugs is common during the remote workday”, by Lin Grensing-Pophal, December 17, 2021, SHRM, https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/benefits/pages/substance-abuse-got-worse-amid-pandemic-and-remote-work.aspx