The Challenges of Delivering Feedback Remotely

In a remote work environment, frequent, swift, and informal feedback happens much less often than in a physical office.

When you’re in an in-person workplace, feedback can be frequent, swift, and informal. It can be the manager stopping by a young employee’s workstation an hour after they turn in an assignment. The manager then asks the employee for a few minutes of their time, takes them to their office, and points out the good and bad of the employee’s work.

But in a remote environment, these interactions happen less frequently, according to a recent study highlighted by Emma Goldberg and Ben Casselman in The New York Times.

“….remote workers may be paying a hidden professional penalty for that flexibility, according to a working paper from economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the University of Iowa, and Harvard. The research is among the first major studies to demonstrate the professional downside of remote work,” Goldberg and Casselman write. “The economists were able to measure feedback by looking at the number of comments engineers made on one another’s code—a routine and essential form of interaction at most software companies. They found that before the pandemic, engineers working in the same building received 21 percent more feedback than those working in different buildings. Once the pandemic hit, and everyone worked remotely, the feedback gap virtually disappeared, suggesting it had been physical proximity—not some other difference between the groups—that had led to greater feedback for in-person teams.”

Training Employees to Be Proactive

How can organizations offset this shortcoming of remote work environments? Having an informal exchange via online chat versus e-mail may make it easier, and it also may make it easier if the manager has a set time at the end of every day to speak with employees. Employees also can be trained to be proactive in asking for feedback. Managers can be asked to have a conversation with each employee encouraging them to ask for feedback. It helps if the manager acknowledges that in today’s harried modern workplace, it is easy for them to forget to offer feedback on their own. Employees should know they may need to prompt their managers for feedback.

Feedback as Part of Performance Reviews

On managers’ annual performance reviews, one of the measures of their performance could be how frequently they offer feedback to employees and what the quality of that feedback is. Employees can be asked on their performance reviews to share at least one brief anecdote of a time over the past year when their manager offered feedback that pointed out where they could improve, and how they were, indeed, able to improve as a result of that feedback. If an employee is not able to offer at least one such anecdote, it is a red flag to Human Resources and Learning professionals that the manager needs additional training in delivering feedback.

Explain What Needs to Be Done Differently

What do managers need to know about delivering feedback? It seems like everyone knows to start off with positive feedback before leading into criticism. I used to be wary of a now-retired boss whenever he gave me a compliment. I knew something bad was coming. It may be more helpful to train managers to avoid commentary and emotional responses to employees’ work, and, instead, simply let them know what needs to be done.

For example, instead of saying, “This marketing report is thin on detail and a chore to read,” the manager could say, “Next time, please send me additional detail on your projections for the logistics and return on investment of the marketing campaigns you highlight. Please also use shorter sentences—they are easier to read and make it more likely I’ll take away your key points. Thanks!”

You never want an employee to feel like a restaurant owner or movie producer receiving a review. Whether the manager liked or didn’t like an assignment—and what their emotional response was—isn’t important. What matters is what needs to be done differently next time. “Just tell me what you want,” I used to think to myself when receiving critical commentary from my former manager.

In-Person Feedback

In addition to training managers to deliver feedback in actionable, rather than emotional, terms, and having daily 15-minute mini-feedback sessions, it’s important to have all employees, regardless of where they live, have at least one to two in-person feedback sessions annually. Those feedback sessions can happen when the work group is traveling to an event or conference together, or the company can decide to make the development investment to pay for each wholly remote employee to receive in-person feedback at least once a year.

When an employee is in-person with their manager for a full day, they both may find that topics, including needed feedback, come up organically while chatting. There are things you don’t think to say during a 15-minute daily phone call, or even an hour-long weekly online meeting, that over the course of a day in-person may arise in conversation.

How do you ensure your remote employees receive the feedback they need to progress and optimize development opportunities to grow in their careers?