Every time I give a speech these days, I get at least a couple of questions about how my techniques apply to virtual teams. Given that my team at Knightsbridge is a virtual team across two countries and four different time zones, I appreciate the challenge.

I have written about virtual teams on the Knightsbridge OnPeople blog (see below for the links). One thing I haven’t yet addressed (and probably the toughest thing to do remotely) is how to give constructive feedback. I thought I’d tackle that one on the blog today.

The Importance of Feedback in Virtual Teams

With your office mates, you have the benefit of body language and behavior to help you figure out how people are feeling. The minute someone starts walking the long way around to avoid your desk, you have a pretty good sense that there’s an issue.  When someone turns their body away from you or drops eye contact with you in a meeting, you know something is awry.

In virtual teams, you work without that very helpful layer of communication that either reinforces or contradicts what your teammates are saying. Small irritants that aren’t addressed grow to become resentment and divisiveness.  Don’t let concerns with your virtual teammates grow bigger than they need to be. Communicate to avoid unnecessary hard feelings.

How to convey tough messages over the phone

  1. Give the person a heads up so they can prepare for the conversation. Ideally, give them a call and ask if you can set up some time to talk about how things have been going. Don’t jump right into the conversation, but find a quiet time you can dedicate to discussing what’s working and what could be improved. “It’s challenging working remotely and I’d love to spend some time talking about what’s working and how we could be more effective.”
  2. Explain your positive intentions. In person, positive intent shines through in a smile, in open body language, and in your tone of voice. Over the phone, tone of voice is all you have, which isn’t enough. So be clear that you are trying to make life easier for both of you. “Thanks so much for setting up this time. I thought it would be valuable to give each other some feedback and to brainstorm about how we can work effectively at a distance.”
  3. Give feedback just like you would face-to-face. I’ve written about that before but if you need a refresher, read out How to Deliver Feedback  or if you’re the video type, click here to see my instructions for feedback on YouTube
  4. Annotate your conversation with your body language.   As you are listening to your teammate’s answers and going back in forth to create better understanding, you will need to communicate both the things you are thinking AND the things you’re feeling. If you are quiet for a moment, don’t leave them wondering, just say “give me a moment to really soak that in.” If you’re blown away by feedback you receive, say “wow, that’s a surprise to me. I’m really taken aback!” If you’re struggling with the conversation, say “this is difficult for me but I’m glad that we’re getting this stuff on the table.” It will seem foreign at first, but then you’ll get used to adding this extra layer of information to your communication.
  5. Have an action plan. You’re not going to bump into this person the next morning so you won’t have that natural reminder of what you committed to doing. Instead, before you get off the phone, create a plan. Where possible, put actions straight into your calendars. If you committed to check in weekly, send a meeting invite. If you promised to follow-up within 24 hours of receiving something, make it a task with a reminder in your calendar.
  6. Follow up with an email. Voice-to-voice communication is far superior to email for providing feedback and really communicating. Once you’ve done that, you can switch to email to document the conversation. “Thanks so much for our call today. I got a much better sense of how tough it is for you when you are trying to meet a deadline. I also felt like you understood my predicament in having multiple teams that I have to support. As we agreed, from now on we’ll have a weekly 15 minute touch point on Monday mornings to make sure our priorities are aligned. Thanks again!”

You probably avoid or delay uncomfortable conversations even with people you sit right beside. It’s natural to dislike confrontation.  Now imagine how easy it is to let concerns fester when your teammate is out of sight.  But avoiding an important conversation is a bad idea with an office mate and an even worse idea with a virtual teammate.  Get the issues out in the open as quickly as possible.

Other Resources

Virtual teams are made of real humans

Virtual teams can be an unequal playing field

An Interview with Body Language expert Dr. Nick Morgan

Further Reading

When Feedback Triggers Backlash

Unconventional Wisdom on Constructive Feedback

How to Give Feedback to Someone who Doesn’t Report to You