CPA INSIDER

Give your staff great feedback — from a distance

Coaching remote employees requires more foresight.
By Erica Gellerman

It's not just your imagination — giving feedback remotely is more difficult than doing so in person.

For one thing, it can be hard to read physical cues to see how your team member is receiving the feedback you're delivering. 

Another reason giving remote feedback is so challenging is that there are fewer opportunities for your team members to ask for informal feedback. You won't bump into employees in the breakroom or take an elevator ride with them — all places that people would normally ask for and receive casual, informal feedback. As Tammy Bjelland, CEO and founder of Workplaceless, a company that helps organizations successfully transition to a remote work environment, observed, "In a remote environment, employees can feel hesitant to ask for feedback because it feels like an intrusion." To help employees feel more comfortable, she recommends that managers model the practice of asking for feedback themselves. 

While it can be more challenging, it's important to not skimp on feedback. Even in a remote environment, it's still an important part of creating a happy and engaged workforce. Fortunately, there are ways to make giving remote feedback easier and more effective:

Put it on the calendar. Schedule feedback meetings in advance to make sure you have adequate time for them, and have a planned agenda, advised Bjelland, who is located in the Washington, D.C., area. If you expect invitees to show up on video, let them know that as well, so there will be no confusion, said Renee Bardenwerper, CPA, a principal for CLA in Milwaukee, Wis.

Give employees a heads-up. Bjelland recommended that supervisors make it clear on the invite when a meeting is a feedback meeting so it won't come as a surprise. But "give context and don't let employees imagine the worst," said Bjelland.

In fact, Bardenwerper, a 2015 graduate of the AICPA Leadership Academy, often lets staff know she's planning a meeting before sending an invite. "I'll pick up the phone and call them to let them know I think there's something we should discuss," she said.

While scheduling any feedback meeting can cause employees to worry, Bardenwerper makes sure she frames the meeting as a place to discuss opportunities for improvement and stresses that it's a chance to make sure expectations are aligned. Employees may be a little nervous, but she hopes they see this as a chance to come mentally prepared.  

Maintain trust. Whether you're working with new employees or your team is made up of people you have worked with in person, trust is key.

"All candid feedback is tough to give if you haven't established trust," said Brittany Cummings, CPA, director at BKD CPAs and Advisors who is based in Missouri. For new team members, she suggests being intentional about scheduling virtual coffees or building rapport during regular conversations. With her team, she grows trust and connection through weekly video calls. Activities on these calls range from playing games to having honest conversations about diversity and inclusion. 

Track output and results. If you're having trouble getting a good assessment of your employee's performance from afar, Bjelland cautioned that you may be focusing on the wrong measurements. In a traditional work environment, you may have based part of your assessment on whether an employee attends all meetings and works long hours. That isn't easy to monitor now that you're in a remote environment. Instead, she suggested, change your focus to the output and results an employee produces, such as the number of projects they've completed or their average response time to requests. 

Check to ensure your message is being received. Working remotely is challenging because it's difficult to assess body language and cues even when both participants have the camera turned on. Cummings, a 2019 graduate of the AICPA Leadership Academy, makes sure she stops frequently throughout the conversation to ensure that what she's saying is being understood. "I find myself constantly asking, 'Does that make sense?' to make sure that I haven't lost them and to give them a chance to voice their own thoughts or questions," she said.

Give frequent encouragement. Bjelland, Bardenwerper, and Cummings all noted that it is important to be more intentional about providing regular encouragement when working with remote team members. But they all have different strategies for providing that encouragement. 

At Workplaceless, Bjelland uses HeyTaco!, a tool integrated into Slack where team members can give each other taco emojis for a job well done. Bardenwerper makes a special effort to thank team members more often during the day by sending quick emails. Cummings makes sure she includes a note of thanks in her review comments. "Where previously I'd walk over to a team member in the office and tell them they did a great job, I now need to be mindful to put that in an email or in my feedback," she said.

There is a lot to do to transition to a healthy remote-team environment and make sure your feedback systems are supporting your team. By being more intentional about when and how your provide feedback, you'll set your team up for success and create an environment where people can thrive.

Erica Gellerman is a Hawaii-based freelance writer. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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