giving remote feedback

How To Give Productive Feedback to Remote Employees

Sasha Robinson, Head of People at Trainual

Sasha Robinson

April 21, 2020

Giving feedback sucks. 

As Head of People Ops at Trainual, I do it a lot. It’s pretty much built into my job description. But that doesn’t mean I’m any less nervous about delivering it, just more practiced. 

And now that we’re in the middle of COVID-19, our office is fully remote, our communication has transitioned to Slack or Zoom, and providing feedback has become extremely complicated. 

Even before all this, I would practice what I was going to say, role play responses, and feverishly write notes, so I don’t forget anything. And yet, despite my preparation, when I deliver feedback, my mind blanks. I stumble over my words, and I fail to articulate how I’m actually feeling. 

Alternatively, whenever I try written feedback, I feel like I go to one of two extremes. I either rely on neutral language with clear statements of fact that are often misinterpreted as overly negative or critical. Or I use flowery language, with tons of exclamation marks and emojis to clearly communicate, hey! I’m not mad! And with the latter, I focus so much attention on not hurting the recipient’s feelings that I fail to say what actually needs to be said. 

It’s a lose-lose-lose. 

And now that we’re 100% remote, there no longer seemed to be any middle ground between these two extremes. 

Transitioning feedback to remote

About a week ago, I needed to give my CEO some unfavorable feedback. It was the first significant feedback I have had to deliver since transitioning to remote and to say I was dreading it would be an understatement. 

I needed to figure out how to frame my thoughts without falling into either of the extremes and how exactly to deliver it remotely. Slack felt passive and impersonal, and Zoom on the spot and aggressive. And waiting until we are back in person was not an option. 

Then I had this ah-ha moment – I would use video!

 An ah-ha moment for how I would give feedback

We started using Loom a few months ago, and I have become low-key obsessed with it. It’s how I send all my praises to my team, so, I thought, why not record myself giving feedback as well?

I could take notes, practice, communicate verbally without the pressure of handling interruptions. I could even edit if I say something the wrong way. Worst case, I could always just start over! 

I spent about half an hour outlining the feedback, making sure to hit all the key points. Pulling up Loom, I recorded a video and watched it back. I was clear, calm, and articulate. 

I wrote a short summary to go with it that included a clear call to action. This summary went something like this: here is some feedback on such and such. I would love it if you could watch this video, think about it, then prepare to talk about it live tomorrow.

He got to digest the feedback without an audience. And he threw a 60-minute invite on my calendar for the next day. With the 18 hour lapse, he was able to do research, reflect, and come ready to discuss my feedback – emotions aside

It was by far the most productive feedback delivery and subsequent followup that I’ve ever had because it avoided all initial emotional reactions!

5 hot tips for productive feedback

Sure, Loom gave me the capacity to deliver feedback while remote. But that doesn’t mean that I could record myself saying anything I wanted, even if it felt honest. I needed to be conscious of my CEO receiving it on the other end. So, here’s how I make sure my feedback, no matter how I need to deliver it, is productive: 

  1. Be direct (and kind)! Employees can’t improve unless they have candid input. But if the recipient feels attacked during its delivery, the feedback won’t be helpful. 
  2. Be as specific as possible. Seriously, give concrete examples if you can. Otherwise, it might come across like “people think you suck.” Not only is this not constructive, but it makes the recipient feel like everyone is out to get them. The paranoia is REAL. 
  3. There is nothing wrong with constructive feedback. Period. 
  4. Don’t make it personal. The feedback that the person perceives as directed toward a task or objective improves their performance
  5. Provide feedback in real-time. It’s super frustrating when someone has feedback but fails to provide it in a timely fashion. Often, when this happens, by the time the feedback is delivered, it’s no longer helpful.

The most important part of feedback

As soon as I give feedback, I make it clear to the recipient that I intend to discuss it the next workday. If you wait any longer than that to connect, like untimely feedback, the followup becomes significantly less effective

With that being said, it is much more critical that the followup is live (right now, meaning over Zoom), than that it happens within the following workday. Written follow-ups often feel impersonal, and often get misinterpreted or overanalyzed. So, if the followup absolutely has to wait a few days, then let it. 

In the meantime, don’t avoid the other person on Slack or email. Just be mindful that your responses are kind, quick, and neutral until the followup happens. 

When it’s finally time to follow up, don’t jump right into the agenda. (Yes, you should have one outlining how you will resolve this by implementing that in 60-minutes.)

Ask how are you?

Instead, start by asking, how are you? I cannot stress how important this is. Not only does this let the other person know that the conversation will be safe and constructive, but it allows you to gauge where the emotions are before diving in.

If the emotions are settled, go ahead and start the followup. If not, suggest rescheduling the followup for later in the day. Then, be honest. At this point, it’s about openly discussing the feedback, where it came from, and how to move forward productively. I even save the last 10-minutes of these meetings to clearly outline the next steps, when necessary, to eliminate any guessing games. 

With remote being the new norm, it felt critical to the success of our team that I found a way to productively deliver feedback from anywhere. I’m not saying this way is perfect. But it is unquestionably the most productive way I’ve discovered so far. In fact, I think when we finally return to the office, I am going to encourage our team to continue using this feedback and follow-up process. 

Become a better business leader in 5 minutes a week

Get all the news small business leaders need to know - straight to your inbox.

Related Stories

Keep everyone aligned and accountable from anywhere

Try for free Already a user? Sign in