• Increased remote working means a greater need for clear communication.

• Misunderstandings arise from a lack of face-to-face contact.

• Implementing a 'culture of feedback' helps establish the protocol for better conversations.

Many of us are now living in the largest distributed workforce experiment ever, with millions of employees around the world becoming remote workers practically overnight. For organizations and teams fortunate enough to be able to work from home, the last few weeks have been ones of adjustment and learning.

As a leader at a company that prioritizes feedback, I’ve been focusing on the most effective ways for our remote workers to have difficult conversations, as well as helping leaders at other organizations think about approaching performance feedback and potential lay-offs. And I’ve been thinking about how employees at every level can improve dialogue with their co-workers and managers, and ensure their voices are still heard, regardless of location.

One key challenge is that humans are prone to miscommunication, and those tendencies are exacerbated when we’re not face to face. But we can counter this predisposition by implementing what I call a “culture of feedback”, using some practical tips for effective remote communication.

Why we misunderstand each other

Unfortunately, it can be easy for team dynamics to go south quickly. You’ve seen it happen: A work email or Slack message is misinterpreted, and sparks fly. Before you know it, no one’s talking to each other, supervisors are cc’ed, and the issue erupts into A. Big. Deal. With today’s sudden shift to fewer face-to-face conversations, it’s likely that these types of scenarios will happen more often.

Why does miscommunication happen? In the above situation, it doesn’t help that the parties involved can’t hear tone of voice/inflection or make eye contact. We also miscommunicate because of the way our brains work. There’s a model called the Ladder of Inference, which explains the subconscious process of thinking we go through to arrive at a decision or action. It goes like this:

First, we receive facts (she’s late picking me up). We then consider these facts through our own lens based on our experiences and interpret what they mean to us (something must have prevented her from picking me up on time). Next, we apply assumptions without knowing it (her car is old and probably has issues), and from there, draw conclusions (her car must have broken down) and develop beliefs (she’s irresponsible for not maintaining her car). Finally, we take actions that seem reasonable because they are based on our “reasoning” (I’m not waiting; she deserves it if she comes and I’m not here).

I bring up the Ladder of Inference to illustrate why regular and clear communication are so important. When you have a conversation with someone to clarify assumptions before they reach the stages of conclusions, beliefs and actions, you are more likely to avoid frustrations and issues due to misunderstandings.

Culture of feedback

One effective approach to preventing miscommunication is by having a “culture of feedback” (you can find more detail in an online course I created called “Feedback Is Fuel”). This is a work environment in which constructive feedback happens often and frequently, and not just during performance reviews.

Though no one likes to have difficult feedback conversations, they’re actually a core responsibility for managers and critical for employee growth and development.

How to create and maintain a healthy culture of feedback (remotely)

If you weren’t already in the habit of regular communication and feedback, it might feel awkward and hard to start now – but do it anyway. Here are some tips on how to support a culture of feedback remotely:

1. Get started by being direct

Tell your team, “I want to make sure we have/we’re still having a really great feedback culture even when we all work from home, so we’re going to have regular one-on-one and team meetings. Employees: if your manager doesn’t do it, ask for regular touch-base meetings.

2. Follow through

After you say it, do it. Schedule regular feedback conversations, as well as team chats. Be militant about keeping these appointments.

3. Make video chat your go-to

Video chat is the next-best thing to in person, allowing participants to see facial expressions and body language. If you can’t do video, your next best options are a phone call, then a direct message/DM chat – email should be a last resort for feedback.

4. Set yourself up for success

Although we can’t always control our environment (e.g. children and pets!), there are some things you can do to make video calls go more smoothly. Try to minimize distractions, prepare ahead, make feedback specific and clear, and leave time for discussion and questions.

5. Avoid personal attacks

To be constructive and avoid demotivation, it’s key to focus on the situation, behaviour and impact of the behaviour (we’re not meeting deadlines) vs. making it personal (you’re not prioritizing). Discuss how a change will be in their best interest (e.g. help them work to their full potential).

6. Have empathy

Think about context before giving feedback. Right now, people may be stretched to their limits as they worry about their own health and that of their family members too, in addition to work. Can your feedback wait a few days or a week?

Skills for the future

Although we’re focusing on communication challenges in connection with the current crisis, developing remote communication skills and setting up systems now will also help managers and employees in the future, as more teams go remote and more companies increase their global footprint. In fact, it’s estimated that by 2028, 73% of all business teams will have remote workers, which researchers say will deliver higher productivity and lower costs.

Another silver lining may be less pollution from reduced travel. Whatever the driver, there’s definitely more remote work in our futures – making it critical for leadership, management and employees to work to ensure constructive, clear and regular communication.