One of the most difficult tasks for managers is a serious sit-down talk with a direct report. It’s never comfortable to discuss poor attendance, performance, or professional judgment. While often a difficult moment, sitting down in person at least offers the situation a sense of dignity.
What happens, however, when you can’t sit down together?
Remote and contract work are sweeping the globe, and both managers and employees are still learning to navigate its challenges. A major one involves people’s affinity for direct communication. If folks can’t handle a situation by text or a Slack message, some would prefer not to address it at all.
Unfortunately, that’s not realistic. Managers must have tough conversations, even if it’s uncomfortable or made more awkward by distance. Below are three key strategies for mastering the art of tough conversations with remote talent.
1. Keep remote employees motivated and engaged through corporate culture. The physical separation between workers, managers, and decision-makers requires some extra TLC. To bridge the divide, today’s top businesses emphasize their company culture, addressing the primary motivators identified by Drive author Daniel Pink:
- Autonomy. For example, employees can design their own methods or schedules.
- Mastery. Providing training and manager feedback helps people know when they’re on track.
- Purpose. Great cultures also give people something larger to belong to than the task at hand, such as a team with common goals.
Working on culture fosters individual manager-employee relationships as well as healthy teams. Engaged employees will move forward together rather than needing reminders or rebukes.
2. Increase transparency and communication. Instilling your remote company culture with greater transparency and means of communicating employs the very skills you’ll need when you must resort to those tough talks. Clearly define what’s expected of employees. Make key information—such as data, financials, and who does what in your company—available to the whole staff to give them the tools they need to perform well, particularly when unsupervised.
A two-way communication path is also crucial to people who work remotely or on a less formal basis with your company. Besides keeping the work flowing, it allows all parties to form personal relationships and talk things through, to forestall misunderstandings or broken rules. Leaders in successful remote companies locate the best technology for phone, email, chat, and video conferencing. They set policies that encourage interaction.
In my organization, for instance, we have a virtual open-door protocol—anyone in the company may contact anyone else to seek help or input, from interns to the CEO. We stay in touch via Slack, hold video conferences, and get together face to face once a year, minimum. In addition, I survey my people weekly, either with a common policy question, an opinion about what we could be doing better, or a trivia puzzle, just for fun.
This helps us get to know one another, both professionally and personally. That’s how we build trust and teamwork, and how we become engaged. Disseminating information and leveling the playing field also prepare us to have more serious discussions when the situation warrants it.
Workplace conversations become difficult when parties misinterpret each other or become defensive. They devolve away from the facts. If we have tried to engage employees by reaching out with regular contact and if we have provided opportunities for mutual feedback, we will have at least laid the groundwork for approaching them about troublesome matters.
Setting clear expectations, for example, arms us with rules we can point to when discussing violations. Burying a client complaint to avoid accountability might be countered with a reminder of a core value that states: “We always do right by the customer.” If we give our staff periodic refreshers on the company’s values and mission, discussing infractions will be a matter of policy, not a personal attack.
Being transparent with company financials is a great way to put individual behavior into a larger context, again defusing personal criticism. When employees know how their performance affects the balance sheet, we can point to metrics to ask them to step up their game. Thus, they’ll know that we have an objective means of measuring better work outcomes so that their extra effort will be recognized.
3. Prepare and listen. Besides taking cultural steps, managers and business leaders need two more skills: preparation and good listening. To guide a conversation, we must be ready with the background facts, not just react to what we hear. We can gather departmental data, annual review reports, and first-hand accounts from relevant parties. Holding an informed discussion conveys and earns respect.
The most important tool is that of restraint. We should listen more than talk. After all, the employee is the subject of the sit-down. We’ll outline facts and pose questions. Then, it is our obligation to listen to the response and make certain that our employees know they have been heard and understood. There is a reason that “saving face” is important to diplomacy. It takes the sting out of having to admit being wrong.
Effective listening techniques include requests for clarification and summarizing the other party’s points to ensure mutual understanding. These things can be done just as well via video chat as in person. Telephone talks may lose the nuance that facial expression and body language contribute, so active listening and follow-up are even more important.
As virtual offices and on-demand hiring become more common, practice will make perfect. Long-distance meetings will become second nature. Who knows? Maybe the remote workers themselves will elevate the best practices for addressing serious issues, taking the “tough” out of tough conversations.