How to Tactfully Communicate Tough Feedback to Remote Workers


With workers leaving their offices in droves, many businesses are being forced to cope with the challenges of large-scale remote teams for the first time. While some companies are taking the challenge head-on, others are fumbling.

Bike-sharing startup Bird, for example, recently made headlines for firing more than 400 employees in a massive two-minute Zoom call. Because remote workers don’t have to be dealt with face to face, business leaders have neglected promoting healthy forms of communication with them. Times like these show that being able to connect effectively with remote teams isn’t just beneficial — it’s absolutely crucial.

It’s never easy to share tough feedback with remote workers, but it’s often necessary. If, like so many other business leaders, you’re new to having a digital workforce, you’ll need some tips to manage. Here are three practices that can make difficult communication with remote workers a bit easier:

1. Communicate regularly.

Sharing tough feedback may be difficult, but simply having a communication plan in place at all can be its own challenge. Many businesses are in a state of crisis right now, and regular employee communication is likely one of the last items to check off their list. The world’s largest completely remote company, Toptal, has created a helpful remote work guide. Broken down into sections, the guide provides tips on ways your company can better organize its structure to promote open communication.

The first step to take is making communication a regular practice. Team leaders sometimes assume that no news is good news, only taking the time to share criticism. This makes remote workers shy away from contact and hurts the feedback loop in the long run. Instead of only reaching out to give tough feedback, schedule regular catch-up meetings where you can share your perspective on an employee’s work.

Unusually subpar employee work is usually the result of other issues, and only through frequent communication can team leaders get an understanding of what those issues might be. Workers are facing just as many new challenges as leaders are right now, and staying abreast of what’s going on with your workforce can help you solve problems early on.

2. Get your medium right.

In an office setting, giving negative feedback in person is the go-to option: It’s personal, and it allows for any relevant questions to be asked. With remote teams, however, the right medium for criticism isn’t quite as clear.

While negative feedback over email remains an easy option for managers, it’s one of the worst from a worker’s point of view. Email makes asking questions more difficult and can create ambiguity when it comes to tone. Face-to-face communication, through a video conferencing platform such as Zoom or Google Duo, is almost universally the way to go.

Bird’s mass firing, however, shows that not all Zoom communication is created equal. Most importantly, tough feedback should be delivered in a one-on-one setting as often as possible. Sharing bad news about an individual in a group meeting will likely be the cause of more embarrassment and resentment than actual growth. In addition, consider screen or document sharing during these feedback sessions — identifying specific issues in an employee’s work can take the edge off your criticism by showing that you’re not telling him off; you’re trying to promote his future success.

3. Highlight positives.

In today’s business landscape, every decision your company makes can feel like its most important yet. Because of this, missteps on the part of employees can be exceptionally frustrating. While you might sometimes be tempted to let all of your frustration out on the offending party, doing so might set you back more than anything.

Research published in Harvard Business Review has concluded that exceptionally harsh criticism actually hinders employees’ performance — only highlighting negatives often inspires defensiveness and decreases motivation. Before giving an employee a morsel of tough feedback, take a step back to evaluate his value on a larger scale.

Always come to performance review sessions with a list of positives, as well as negatives, in mind. Remote workers are already somewhat disconnected from your office’s culture, and only giving them criticism can alienate them further. By highlighting the things you appreciate in their work, you’re inspiring your remote employees to stick to their strengths and continue to bring their best to your business every day.

Remote work is a challenge for employees and leadership alike. By mastering the art of delivering feedback over a distance, you can ensure that your remote workforce is firing on all cylinders when you need them to the most.

Brad Anderson

Brad Anderson

Editor In Chief at ReadWrite

Brad is the editor overseeing contributed content at ReadWrite.com. He previously worked as an editor at PayPal and Crunchbase. You can reach him at brad at readwrite.com.



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