Feedback. For some, this word conjures up the sound of an amplifier shriek or their manager’s criticism. But feedback is also something many of us on virtual teams miss. Those of us working remotely often miss the frequent feedback that recognized our work in simple ways.
The in-person interaction of just saying “Hi!” was feedback that our presence was noted and if it was accompanied by a smile, we knew we were also welcomed. When someone noticed us working on something outside current priorities, they could suggest we refocus. We might not have even noticed this gentle redirect of our attention. So many communication cues we relied on in physical space are absent online. How can we encourage more feedback in virtual spaces?
Build a culture of feedback
Hopefully, your teams think of feedback as just a routine part of their interactions. Members find it’s natural to say thanks or to remind each other of their commitments. But this type of atmosphere and expectation isn’t universal and often needs to be built.
Trust is harder to build virtually. The lack of spontaneous interactions, loss of eye contact, the difficulty of reading the room, and Zoom fatigue all make it harder to connect with team members. Rapport has to be built purposefully.
Here are a few things organizations can do:
- Schedule times for individuals to meet online, regardless of any business need. Give people a chance to know each other as people.
- Keep cameras on, at least at the beginning of a meeting.
- Look directly at your camera and gesture more broadly.
- Use people’s names often. This pulls attention back to the meeting.
- Restate comments and thank people for their contributions. This can replace the head nod and grunts of agreement experienced in a live meeting.
- Add an ice-breaker or a bit of personal catch-up time before getting down to business.
- Leaders can model the behavior of trust. By showing vulnerability, admitting to not having all the answers, and acknowledging their own need to keep learning, leaders will have an easier time building a positive team culture.
Teams that take the time to discuss how they want to give and receive feedback will be more successful at it. Groups that acknowledge that we’re all learning how to be better at teaming in the virtual space will be more tolerant of missteps. Acknowledge that people might be uncomfortable with new tools, that messages might seem more aggressive than intended, and that some communication might feel inefficient. Assuming positive intent can go a long way to maintaining trust.
Every step we can take to build trust is valuable and makes it easier to give and receive feedback.
Does your team ask a lot of questions? This is also an important part of a feedback culture. Questions increase understanding. Questions show interest, a willingness to learn, and an acceptance of feedback. Allow time and provide space for questions.
Question assumptions. Understanding is harder in a virtual space. Assumptions are easily made. For example, it’s easy to assume that someone not speaking up on camera is uninterested. But, if asked to offer comments in chat, they may have something important to share.
Ask for clarifications. Ask others to restate what they heard or to share their takeaways from a conversation. Question intent and responses to feedback. For example, did that exclamation point indicate anger or excitement? This is more important than ever in virtual settings where miscommunication is more common than in-person.
Acknowledge that conflict is inevitable
Conflict is uncomfortable, but teams that accept that it can also be productive will be more innovative and achieve better results. Feedback becomes information rather than confrontation.
Team culture can include the recognition that conflict is expected and will follow team norms. Teams can encourage conflict around tasks and procedures, while discouraging it around issues of personality. In other words, feedback should confront the problem or behavior, not the person.
Set team expectations. Is it acceptable to raise your voice? When should a conflict be taken off-line? Is consensus required for every decision? Part of a positive feedback culture is establishing structure around it and an agreement of how it will be handled.
Make feedback routine
Making feedback a regular part of team activities will make it expected and routine. Feedback that’s held back until a performance review isn’t really feedback. It’s criticism or a gift given after the party. Regular, immediate, and specific feedback is more easily accepted and understood; it can be quickly acted on. It’s the difference between “turn left here” and “do a U-turn up ahead and try again.”
Implement “after action reviews,” bringing the team together to discuss a completed task, activity, or project. The U.S. Army follows every project or event with an after action review. Everyone knows that they should be prepared to discuss expectations, what worked, and what didn’t work.
Use technology to get immediate feedback. For example, a team working on improving their virtual meetings could follow up with a short poll. If members rated the meeting poorly, then there’s a follow-up discussion about why. If meetings consistently go well, the poll can be dropped.
Use tools built into technology you’re already using. Microsoft Teams has a Praise feature. Slack has features that make positive feedback easy to give and highlight. Or use tools created specifically for feedback, such as Engagedly or Reflektive. Conduct pulse surveys, a regularly scheduled questionnaire to quickly gauge and evaluate employee satisfaction, productivity, and overall attitude. Then, of course, act on what you’re learning.
Thanking others for feedback and sharing how feedback made a difference should also be routine. It’s important to show that feedback is valued and acted upon.
Greet people by name when using collaborative tools. Smile when on camera. These are the simplest forms of recognition. They are easy ways of showing appreciation for group members.
Know your team members and how they prefer to receive feedback. Who would prefer a shout-out in a team meeting and who would appreciate a note via email? Who will feel attacked if their thoughtless comment was called out in Teams or Slack and who would recognize their error and appreciate being able to apologize to the team right away? What feedback should be verbal and which needs to be in writing?
Amplify kind words and thoughts. It’s easy to assume that others know that we mean well and we appreciate their work. But it’s hard to show that virtually. It’s hard to know when someone might need some support or assistance if we don’t ask. Others might not understand that you’re rooting for them if you don’t explicitly say so.
Give difficult feedback in whatever medium brings you closer. If you can’t meet in person, meet in a video chat where the viewer can see your body language. If you have to provide feedback in a written form, be sure to avoid anything easily misinterpreted, such as emojis or exclamation points. Have someone else read it for clarity of content, context, and emotion.
Don’t forget the team
At the start of a new project, teams should decide how they’re going to work together and how they will hold each other accountable.
Something the manager might see as an individual’s problem might be better addressed by their team. Just as with individual feedback, make team feedback specific and actionable.
Give teams opportunities to celebrate their accomplishments and each other. This might be nominating someone for an award or small gift; it might be stickers or avatars the recipient can use for a week. Or it could be a monthly “praise wall” on a shared virtual whiteboard or polling platform. Some teams have a regular item on their agenda for team feedback and kudos.
Teams also give feedback to their leadership. This might have to be formalized with regular check-ins, 360 reviews, town halls, or virtual suggestion boxes. Or hold an “open door day” during which all leaders open their schedules for one-on-one time with any employee, to discuss any topic the employee chooses.
Everyone should understand how and where to offer feedback. There should be some virtual space for leaders, managers, teams, and individuals to be recognized from positions below and above in the org chart. There should also be a space for observations and concerns to be raised and for errors to be pointed out. For larger organizations, a short training on when and how to use these tools might be needed.
Use Everything DiSC tools
Understanding the personalities of your colleagues makes it much easier to understand their communication styles and needs. For example, if you’re working with an Everything DiSC® D-style peer and their emails are short and curt, you’ll understand that this is a result of their desire for quick, direct action. It’s not necessarily a brush-off of you or your idea. If an S-style colleague is on your video call, you’ll know that they may be slower to speak up and you can call on them when you see them unmute themselves.
Knowing someone’s DiSC style can help you provide the type of feedback another finds motivating. For the i-style colleague who is motivated by enthusiasm, you will do better to provide feedback in a casual setting and allow them time to verbalize their responses. For the C style, you’ll want to refer back to agreed-upon standards and give them time alone to consider your feedback before committing to changes.
Assume positive intent from those offering you feedback and offer feedback from a place of wanting the best outcome. It may feel awkward or contrived when practicing it online. That’s OK. Feedback allows you to give these gifts to your leaders, your peers, and your staff: attention, respect, reward, and engagement. This makes it worth the risks.
How to Avoid Virtual Miscommunication, Harvard Business Review
How to Conduct an After Action Review in 5 Simple Steps, Toggle Track
How to Give Feedback and Connect Values in Slack, Lattice.com
Communicating Authentically in a Virtual World, Harvard Business Review
by Kristeen Bullwinkle