Delivering constructive criticism remotely—without sinking employee morale

Giving feedback over a virtual medium comes down to a few simple strategies.

Delivering constructive criticism remotely—without sinking employee morale
[Source image: VPanteon/iStock]

As the world adjusts to the COVID-19 pandemic, more employees are working from home. Digital communication is standing in for everyday “IRL” interactions, requiring us to rethink how to work effectively with our teams—including how we give feedback.


The feedback paradox

Feedback is critical for our improvement and career progress. It goes without saying: when individuals are thriving, teams thrive, too.

But, as it turns out, most of us don’t love to dole out criticism. We worry about offending our colleagues or hurting their morale. Or, because we’re only human, we worry about being disliked.

The paradoxical aspect of negative feedback comes down to this sentiment: Although most people don’t like giving it, most people do want to receive it. In fact, one study published by Harvard Business Review found that more people prefer corrective feedback (57%) to praise or recognition (43%). This is mostly because people believe that negative feedback does more to improve their performance than positive feedback.

As managers during these extraordinary times, some things will inevitably fall through the cracks: Your weekly team happy hour might be delayed, and your casual coffee breaks with colleagues might have to wait (though I’d recommend giving Zoom coffees a shot). Though the one thing that can’t afford to fall through the cracks is feedback.

With that in mind, here are some expert-backed strategies for delivering feedback remotely.


Establish frequent and casual check-ins

There’s no arguing: Remote work lacks the same human connection as the office environment.

Even seemingly insignificant interactions, such as status meetings and watercooler chats, help pave the way for open communication and honest feedback. Regularly checking in with your team—by chat, call, or email—can help maintain that connection. It can also help us overcome common feedback issues.

Research shows that managers often inadvertently sugarcoat their criticism, which makes it less helpful than straightforward feedback. What’s more, the same researchers found that managers don’t even realize they’re sugarcoating. They tend to see their feedback as more critical than the employees on the receiving end.

To combat this tendency, make sure you’re still giving feedback frequently, which has been shown to make it more accurate. When the time comes to deliver a more emotionally charged message, you and your colleague have already established rapport and mutual trust. Therefore, you’re more likely to be honest, even if it stings.

Ongoing, casual check-ins also prevent future mishaps, which are a greater liability in remote work situations. As global CEO coach Sabina Nawaz writes in Harvard Business Review, “Small and frequent performance guidance circumvents major corrections down the road and allows everyone to stay in sync despite distance and daily change.”


Remember compassion

Before you tear into your colleague’s latest work, remember a little compassion can go a long way toward establishing trust. As HBR’s “Guide to Performance Management” explains, “Since your virtual employee may not have the regular opportunity to read your tone or body language, establishing this mutual trust and reassurance will help your message become more palatable.”

Taking this into account, you might be wondering how you can show genuine compassion without coming across as disingenuous, or worse, serving up a compliment sandwich with a slice of criticism in the middle.

Try to utilize the same pleasantries as you would hopefully use at the office. Begin with some small talk, use a calm, measured tone, and, if appropriate, commend your colleague on their work.

Thrive founder Arianna Huffington recommends pausing to reflect beforehand, saying, “If you’re stressed or rushed, you’re more likely to deliver feedback without compassion or empathy, even if that’s unintentional.”

The key is to let them know you’re on their side, even if you have to address something they could do better.


Choose video for sensitive information

If you’ve ever received a text and spent an embarrassing amount of time trying to interpret it, then I’m sure you agree one message can be read in myriad ways.

That’s why when it’s time to deliver constructive feedback remotely, a video call is the best alternative to face-to-face meetings. Whereas visual cues such as body language and facial expressions get lost in voice calls, videoconferencing maintains those crucial, nonverbal communicators. Research studies have found that video calls are just as effective as in-person meetings, as long as you frame the video to capture your body language, not just your facial expressions.

As CEO of my company, JotForm, I’ve been working from home with my spouse and two children. I understand it can feel stressful to conduct video meetings outside of the normal office environment. I consistently recall this hilarious BBC interview in which a professor’s adorable children barge in on-screen. It’s a lighthearted example of how work and family life can collide, despite your best efforts keep them separate.

Whether you’re dealing with cramped quarters or your own tiny intruders, remember that most of us are in the same boat. If you show your colleagues a little empathy, chances are they’ll be happy to return the gesture.

Aytekin Tank is the founder of JotForm, a popular online form builder. Established in 2006, JotForm allows customizable data collection for enhanced lead generation, survey distribution, payment collections, and more.