How to critique an employee remotely

As a leader, providing feedback to team members is part of your core role and responsibility. Even if you have many years of experience critiquing employees, the idea of a giving a review via Zoom can feel strange. After all, you’re not in person, it’s tougher to read body language, and you can’t predict technical hiccups that could cause communication.

Since COVID-19 will keep many offices closed throughout the summer and potentially the year, developing strategies for productive remote conversation will maintain progress morale. Before you dial-in to give a piece of negative commentary though, expert suggests following a few critical steps to ensure you’re sending the right, clear message:

Always ‘meet’ face-to-face

Since conference rooms are often a hot commodity at many businesses, it can be a relief you don’t have to book one for a review these days. But, even if you aren’t meeting in person, face-to-face contact is mandatory for critiques of any kind, according to Samantha Friedman, the senior vice president of people strategy at Vettery. She suggests reserving the time with ample notice and double-checking all video equipment and internet connection before starting. 

“Face-to-face communication prevents any misinterpretation of tone or inflection which can often happen via email or instant message,” she continues. “A video call allows you to use eye contact and body language to convey a message beyond words and, conversely, allows you to make adjustments to your approach or tone based on your employee’s reactions.”

Reinforce strengths and desired behaviors

Or otherwise known as: utilize the compliment sandwich. Providing only bad news can make a team member feel incompetent, frustrated, or frazzled. Which is why incorporating some strengths, rather than listing off only weakness is a better tactic, according to Steven Sparks, the senior manager of Career Counseling Programs and Operations at the University of Phoenix. “I recommend reinforcing specific behaviors that contribute to high performance. If a staff member needs to improve in certain areas, you can frame the conversation in such a way that demonstrates an appreciation of effort. At the same time, you co-create a plan to engage in deliberate practice of the desired behavior,” he adds.

Watch non-verbal communication

Founder of the fully-remote company, Breakaway Bookkeeping and Advising, Martin Moll says it best when he shares: “The words we speak are a small part of the emotions we convey.” And this is valid regardless of where we are: in-person or via Zoom. This means it’s important to watch not only the cues you’re sending with non-verbal communication but also how your employee responds to the other end. Being distraction-free, of course, is mandatory. As much as you can at home, try to be in a calm, quiet, and clutter-free space. Once you’re set up, focus solely on the employee. 

“Tone of voice, subtle gestures, posture, and even eye contact really are hard to convey properly,” he continues. “It is imperative that you ensure that your remote workspace is conducive to meaningful conversation. Ensure that you are set up to deliver the message, and are in a position to give it your full attention. Finally, remember the word of your mom: make sure you smile!”

Highlight specific accomplishments

In addition to weaving in the good news with the not-so-great, Starks says providing specific, detailed examples of work performance helps to convey your message. When at all possible, try to think of events within the last three to six months, or at the very least, since your direct report’s previous review. Starks suggests keeping notes on each employee to make this task less tedious.

“This requires me to be diligent about documenting accomplishments throughout the year, but it is effective because it empowers individuals to see what kind of trend they are establishing,” he continues. “Providing this high-level view gives employees the perspective they need to reflect on the impact of their work as well as the overall trajectory of their performance. Helping employees view their most recent performance relative to their past performance is much more equitable than comparing them to other employees.”

Encourage self-reflection

Starks says self-reflection is vital for helping employees develop their solutions for overcoming challenges and sustaining high levels of performance. And from a manager’s perspective, it can also give you an inside look into their brain, and how they view their own performance. Sometimes, he says, you may realize you’re world’s apart, which can open up a conversation on how to get on the same page. 

He suggests having team members answer these questions before your review session:

-As we move into the next quarter, here are some questions to consider:

-What accomplishments energize you and give you a sense of meaning? 

-What strengths will help you perform at a high level?

-What potential challenges do you foresee that we can address now?