Bad news, everyone. This is a one way street. Careers in software engineering, and management in that realm are not going to return to a forty-hours-all-in-the-same-place-with-headphones-on-did-Jeff-microwave-fish-again world, even as getting within six feet of others moves back from “fatal” to “uncomfortable.” And while this can have a lot of benefits for highly-focused, solitary parts of the work, it presents new challenges for us as people leaders to ensure we are able to regularly, compassionately, and effectively give feedback to our team members.
Remote-only or remote-first work is not a reinvention of how we work with our colleagues. There is still a time and a place to give positive and negative feedback, and some strategies to make sure that feedback is contextualized, professional, and actionable.
The biggest difference is that those times and places must be scheduled, and must be in the same place where all other work is being done. There is less of an opportunity to create a mental wall between where work is done, and where working is evaluated.
So, in order to set boundaries for what facilitates effective remote feedback, let’s set some basic guidelines for what makes good feedback to begin with.
Feedback that has a measurable outcome should always be a priority over that which is more touchy-feely. While this is true for all feedback, it’s more important in a remote context as you will not be around to notice changes in immeasurable behaviors.
Provided feedback is measurable, it should always come with a desired action to go along with it, to either change behavior that is perceived by you or the team as negative, or to capitalize and reinforce behavior that is positive.
I believe that this is the most important tool in making sure feedback is taken seriously by both parties, and is an approach I used in the before-times. Keep a running document that both the feedback provider and recipient have access to with agreed upon language as to what the feedback is, what actions should be taken, and when they will be revisited.
There are tools that can aid in this but I’m not going to list them because you’re using the internet right now. And while tools tailored to feedback documentation are great, any documentation in any tool is going to make a huge difference in framing feedback as a regular, ongoing process with your colleague.
A Repeatable Model for Feedback
Now, that covers how to approach giving feedback, but what about the feedback itself? The actual tangible praise or critique that you want to bring up and have sink in. For that, we can rely on the SBI (Situation-Behavior-Impact) model. This is, again, a tool that is not limited to or invented for the remote workplace, but one that is more relevant now than ever.
Breaking it down, the SBI model is:
Situation: Set the context for the feedback you’re giving by describing the situation in which an event occurred in a specific manner. It’s important to not include judgements here, but simply state the facts and describe the behavior that you noticed.
Behavior: Describe the actual behavior you noted. Again, try to keep your own judgements out of this description and ask questions of your employee to try to understand what their thought process was, or the decisions they were making that led to this behavior.
Impact: Now detail your own feelings and judgements about this behavior. Explain to the feedback recipient what the impact of their behavior in this situation was on the project, the team, or the organization, but remember from before: keep information measurable.
This model works so well because it provides a scaffolding for both positive and negative feedback, and that which applies to one person, a team, or even a project.
The thing that you, as a manager, have to remember is to ensure you have the situation and behavior correctly framed going into the conversation. Again, the more useful tool for that is documentation. Because you cannot (should not) set a quick ad-hoc meeting to give feedback in the heat of the moment, make sure that you are documenting the situation and behavior you experienced, so that you are not trying to piece it back together when next meeting with your colleague.
Moreover, by focusing on documenting the individual situation, you can then tie those situations together via your (already documented) previous feedback to help your employee recognize patterns in their behavior and understand the impact those patterns have across multiple situations.
Actually Talking to People
Now, putting together the strategies for crafting feedback, and how to model it in conversation - what about actually setting time aside to give that feedback to your colleague? This, obviously, is where the remote workplace differs most radically from whatever-we’re-calling-what-was-just-the-workplace.
My go-to strategy for giving feedback in-person was to leave the office. Good feedback or bad, I would encourage employees to go for a walk with me, or grab coffee. It provided a clear break between the place in which they were doing their work, and the place in which they would be self-evaluating. While giving feedback is hard, receiving it can obviously take a toll, especially if it is negative. And there is no easy way to separate one mental place from the other in a remote context. So how do we overcome this challenge?
If you don’t have regularly scheduled 1:1 meetings with all of your employees, first of all, how dare you. Second of all, go set them up. My recipe is 45 minutes every two weeks - this gives ample room to fill with updates on projects the employee is engaged in, time to brainstorm or even vent about current challenges, and most importantly for this discussion, a regular cadence in which to provide and discuss feedback.
Unless something egregious has happened, most discussions can wait this maximum of 14 days between the situation happening (and being documented) and being discussed. And just as with your shared documentation of feedback and actions, you should keep a running shared schedule of topics and action items from 1:1 meetings, and add to them ad-hoc between these meetings so that you both know what to anticipate going in.
While this doesn’t provide a physical break from where all other work is done, it does create a separate, predictable space in which an employee should expect to be more reflective, and be ready for praise or criticism. It also lessens the anxiety around either:
Unexpected ad-hoc feedback coming via slack, email, or sudden meetings thrown on the calendar.
Radio silence between mandatory quarterly check-ins for conversations impacting career growth.
Simply put: feedback should happen all the time, but not so all the time that there isn’t a clear firebreak between where it starts and stops.
On the call
With all of these strategies in place: You’ve just started a 1:1 call with your employee. You have feedback to give. Both of you are aware of that because it’s in the shared document outlining the topics for this 1:1. You have notes of the situation and behavior that you want to discuss. And you have action items from previous feedback to check in on. What now?
Well, the lessons from giving in-person feedback are no different here. Remember that you’re working with a person, and you should first address topics they would like to discuss. Give ample time to what’s on their mind and don’t rush to get to the feedback. Encourage them to address action items first, as they will be the most straightforward to speak to and move past.
Feedback, positive or negative, can both fill space and halt conversation, so save it for the last topic of the meeting, so that you can address everything else. And as with in-person feedback, make sure to explain every assumption you are making as you make it, and frequently ask what the employee’s mindset, intent, and context was when you are describing behaviors.
Give the feedback room to breathe as well, I schedule 45 minute 1:1 meetings both because they usually don’t need the entire time, so when there are light topics, they can end early, but also because people are for some reason allergic to 15 minute meetings, meaning that a 1:1 can go long if it needs to. Because you are discussing an employee’s behavior in a more cold, awkward environment to begin with, one of the worst things you can do is cut the meeting off because you need to go somewhere else. It will leave your colleague feeling unimportant and undervalued. In a similar vein, never cancel your 1:1 due to scheduling conflicts - always reschedule it and explain to your colleague why, as soon as you do it.
Finally, circling all the way back to documenting measurable and actionable outcomes from your feedback, spend the end of this meeting coming up with those actions together. Ensure your colleague feels ownership over the next steps, and both understands and agrees with the timeline set to check in on those action items. Lead with your desired outcome, but be flexible to feedback-on-feedback that allows for a compromise between what you see as the idealized outcome versus what your colleague may see as their ideal, or realistic one.
This isn’t just remote
Being forced into a pants-optional year of work challenged us to radically change the ways we communicate with our teams. Discussions, 1:1s, and feedback sessions need to be scheduled, organized, timeboxed. But the benefit of this is that we have gotten much better at asynchronously keeping one another aware of our thinking. And all of the approaches I’ve detailed here, while targeted at remote feedback, apply to returning to in-person conversations as well.
Having a framework for your feedback ensures you are prepared to discuss it. Documenting that feedback with your colleague ensures no misinterpretations of what the desired outcomes are. And drawing a clear line between where work is done and where working is evaluated helps foster a sane workplace where your employees can flourish.