Feedback in the Era of Remote Work

Feedback is hard.

But it’s even harder when delivered asynchronously, over a jittery video chat, with a lousy audio connection. Today’s remote work environment makes everything more challenging, but feedback is one of the hardest-hit areas. The person receiving the feedback cannot respond to many of the social cues that communicate compassion and care from the person who is giving it. 

So, where does that leave us? How do we give feedback in the era of remote work? Let’s work through these layers.

The first layer of complication—positive and negative feedback are different neurologically

Every person can reflect on a time when feedback in the workplace was delivered well, at a critical moment and created a solid foundation to build upon. This type of feedback aligns with how the human brain learns best: building on what we already know to be a strength. Current neuroscientific research supports the hypothesis that brains grow most where it is already strongest. People engaged in a positive feedback cycle typically have received feedback that is meant to take their performance from good to great. With positive feedback, the underlying assumption is that a person is capable, full, and could be excellent by making a few small changes. You may also reflect on a time where feedback was delivered poorly and felt jarring or painful. When this happens, the feedback is generally ignored or outright rejected because our brains go into ‘defence’ mode and ultimately stifles learning. The underlying assumption in this type of feedback is that the person receiving the feedback is lacking in some way: knowing where they stand, their key abilities, or what great performance looks like.

So why then, if neuroscience supports the hypothesis that people learn best in their areas of strength, do we choose to skew our feedback to focus on a person’s weaknesses?

The second layer of complication—what people choose to focus their feedback on:

Often feedback is given to strengthen a ‘weak link’ in someone’s performance. The person giving feedback will point out a flaw or imperfection in someone else’s work that they should change for the next time they face a related situation. The complication here is that this is derived from an egocentric view. This feedback style assumes that the person giving the feedback knows more about the work than the person performing it, and knows better what excellent performance in that area looks like.

Refocusing the assumptions around why we give feedback and what to focus our feedback on are two essential factors in providing good feedback. Here are some ideas to get started:

  1. Develop deeper relationships with the people to whom you most often have to deliver feedback. Get to know their goals and strengths and align feedback to what they are currently working on. 
  2. Define what outcomes your team is working towards and recognize when those goals are achieved. 
  3. Recognize excellence when you see it. Drop what you’re doing and make recognizing great performance on your team a top priority.
  4. When someone on your team is struggling, use coaching strategies like asking, “When you have encountered this problem in the past, what worked? What didn’t?”
  5. If you notice that someone’s performance is off-track, comment on your own experience of their performance instead of focusing your comments on what they ‘should’ do. Sometimes it helps to ask questions and encourage people to solve problems for themselves.

The third layer of complication—delivering feedback

This is the level of complication that few people have experience in managing. Changing habits is difficult, and the five strategies above are made even more difficult now that many teams are working remotely. For example: how is it possible to develop deeper relationships when you aren’t connecting over coffee every morning? How is it possible to see and comment on excellence when it happens when you aren’t able to actually see the person working? There are so many additional barriers to providing useful feedback to peers and teammates when you aren’t physically in the same space as those people.

The key to improving the effectiveness of your feedback is to develop deeper relationships. Make regular contact with your peers a habit. It is more important now than ever to connect with teammates and peers across whatever medium makes sense. Try to take some time to stay informed about what people are working on, what challenges they’re facing, and what wins they’ve experienced lately. Don’t assume that no news is good news, and don’t wait to deliver good news. Share your successes with your teams and teammates when they happen. Remember to celebrate success.

Feedback has never been a perfect process in any office environment, and it is even more challenging now that the workforce is distributed. Make keeping connected to teammates and peers a priority. Try to focus your feedback on the recipient’s strengths to help them move from good to great. These two key changes in reframing how we give feedback in remote working environments will help to make giving feedback more natural, organic and effective.