As the space between work and not-work becomes ever more blurred, questions about how to do this thing we plug away at for 30 or 40 or 70 hours a week become all the more expansive. In Work Flow, we delve into the novel dilemmas created by the new ways we work, as well as timeless questions about ethics, gender assumptions, and toxic work situations (and how to escape them). How we work is an important component of how we live—and we’re here to help you do better at both.
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Q1: My manager has always been an extremely hands-off, “you figure it out” type who doesn’t really want to spend a lot of time explaining or even talking much at all. Which is fine sometimes, but now that I’m isolated and working from home all day, I find myself needing more support and day-to-day contact, as well as clear instructions on what needs to be done as things change. How do I approach this conversation about how I need them to guide me, especially because it’ll be via video chat, which I already find to be an awkward way to communicate?
Q2: I have an employee who has been unable to meet the goals we set before we all started working from home. How do I deal with this while also being understanding about the disruptions in workload and life that are happening now? I realize we’re in a world health crisis, but there are certain things that need to happen to keep the business running. Help!
I’m including two questions here because—although they each come from different places and levels at different organizations—they both address the same basic topic, something many of us are struggling with right now: giving feedback. This can be challenging under normal circumstances. But it is especially difficult to give feedback that will bring about change when you’re already struggling to communicate in a new way while most teams are working remotely—and you’re probably personally overloaded to boot.
There are two challenges here. One is adapting to the still relatively new (to us) technology of videoconferencing and making it as seamless as possible for you to use it. The second is giving the feedback itself, whether it’s for your manager or for someone who works for you.
As far as the first one goes, take a moment to review this piece on how to have a productive virtual meeting to make sure you have all your bases covered. Ask yourself: Is your technology reliable? Test it to find out! Are you muting yourself when others are speaking? Do you have a handle on not interrupting/waiting for your turn to speak? (This can be challenging, and mistakes are OK!) Are you wearing clothes (I hope so!), not eating, and paying attention?
Other things to consider: your posture (sit up straight, like your mom always told you); minimizing the distractions around you (I put my dogs in another room or have my husband take them for a walk before I do an important call); making eye contact and not gazing off somewhere in the distance (or at other things on your computer). In fact, do yourself a favor and shut down anything else that might be going on in the background so you can focus 100 percent on your virtual meeting. Avoid the pull to multitask. On video chat, it’s pretty obvious when you’re not paying attention.
If video-chatting is super new to you, or you’re especially nervous, you might even practice doing it a few times with a friend or family member before you have a big work meeting. Note: Sometimes there can be a delay in video chats. Check your internet connection, or dial in again, because having a tough conversation when your tech isn’t working correctly is an exercise in frustration and futility.
Once you’ve got it, you’ve got it. Time to move on to the feedback portion of things. The basic rules of giving feedback in person also apply to video chats.
1. Figure out beforehand what you actually want to say
What is the issue at hand? What do you want to get from this conversation?
In the case of question one, it’s best to request some one-on-one time in which you can ask questions and get responses—in fact, you want to give feedback to your manager so that your manager will in return give you feedback. You want to open up the channels of conversation so you feel less alone.
What does this look like to you? Spend some time imagining the best-case scenario: Maybe this is a weekly meeting or a daily one, or maybe it has to only happen once or twice for you to get the information and support you need. Just because your manager isn’t a hands-on kind of person doesn’t mean you can’t ask for help.
Write up a little script or outline for yourself—it always helps me to have something written out that I can refer to in the moment—on what you think will make your work life a little better.
In the case of question two, you’re struggling to figure out how to address performance in a particularly challenging time. I think your first step would be to open up an honest conversation with this employee about the challenges they’re facing, and how you might help them do their work better and hit the necessary goals. Also, think about what the ideal performance looks like to you. Then temper your expectations with the fact that we are living through a global pandemic and everyone is facing entirely new challenges. Those goals may no longer be possible. This is an opportunity not only to share feedback with your employee but also to listen as well, and then reevaluate goals and the business from there.
Productive feedback is a two-way street. It should include what you would like to say as well as what you can do to help the person you’re talking to achieve what you—and hopefully they—ultimately want.
2. Schedule a good time for a video chat
Do not just spring this conversation on someone. Figure out a time in which you can be calm and collected and not distracted by other duties. Definitely don’t give feedback as part of a group chat. Make sure it’s just the two of you, and that what you want to discuss doesn’t come as a surprise—clearly lay out the purpose for the conversation ahead of time.
In the case of question one, you can ask your manager to have a conversation with you about your desire for more regular feedback at this time. (Given the changes everyone is going through because of the coronavirus, it’s utterly reasonable to have some new needs regarding putting your best business self forward!) In question two, you might approach it as, “Let’s set up a call to talk about how you’re feeling about your workload and goals.” When you’re on the call, reiterate your expectations of what’s necessary and then ask them how things are going before discussing why the goals aren’t being met and whether adjustments need to be made.
3. Be supportive, but also be clear
People talk about “compliment sandwiches,” but be careful about pouring on so much positivity that you hide your true intentions and the person you’re talking to comes away uncertain about what you want, or worse, thinking that everything’s great. At the same time, don’t shame them or criticize them—especially not in front of a group. (Again, don’t try to share feedback over video chat with more than one person at the same time unless you’re specifically working with a team in which members need to hear team-focused feedback at once. In that case, all feedback should be group-based.)
Experts recommend using “I” instead of “you” statements so that what you say feels less like a personal attack of the person you’re giving feedback to. (For instance, “I see you’re not hitting the goals we set out, can we talk about that?” as opposed to “You are doing it wrong/failing/a failure,” or “I’m feeling very isolated and it would help to schedule some regular check-ins” as opposed to “You never explain anything to me and it’s making my work suffer.”)
Again, it may help to consider feedback holistically. It’s not what your manager or employee is doing wrong. It’s about what you need to do to help them do better—so that both of you can succeed as much as possible. Be as specific as you can, referring to exactly what you’ve seen and providing suggestions (refer back to what you wrote down in point #1) for improvement. Cast improvement in terms of “this will help me/help you/help the company” as opposed to “you need to do this better.”
4. Offer a space for listening
Feedback isn’t just about you doing the talking—it means letting the other person talk too. Have a seat, make eye contact—don’t get distracted by an email, your partner, or your phone—and listen. They may have something going on in their life that you hadn’t realized, or perhaps they’ve noticed the issue and have suggestions of their own. Take turns talking, avoid interrupting each other, and listen carefully, so hopefully this conversation can lead to a stronger working relationship overall.
5. Have an agenda and refer to it!
You don’t want these conversations to go too long (try scheduling them for smaller segments of time, like 15 minutes or maybe 30, and try not to go over), nor do you want to muddy them with too many side conversations. Be timely—you don’t want to appear as suddenly coming out of the blue to address an issue from a year ago. (Don’t, however, attempt to give feedback right after a perceived issue occurs. Always take some time to step back and figure out what you want to say first.) You also don’t want to keep having the same feedback conversation over and over again.
6. Schedule a follow-up (or regular follow-ups)
Before you hang up, make a date at a reasonable time after your initial call to chat again and see how things are going. You may want to implement regular feedback sessions, which in the case of both questions sounds like a good idea, especially now! Feedback, after all, isn’t just one and done. What you’re doing is setting up the foundation for conversations down the line that continue to help you build your relationship (and your business) for the future. Good luck!
Jen Doll is a journalist and author of the memoir Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Harper’s Bazaar, the New York Times, and other publications.