5 Tips on How to Handle Tough Conversations With Remote Workers

Here are 5 tips to effectively handle difficult conversations with your employees working remotely.

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5 Tips on How to Handle Tough Conversations with Remote Workers
Use these tips to help make tough conversations go smoothly for everyone.

Here's what you need to know:

  • It's vital to handle tough conversations effectively
  • Be clear and upfront about your objective
  • Avoid conducting difficult conversations in text
  • Ask how you can help the worker to improve
  • Hear the employee out and check for understanding
  • Video calls may not be the best communication method depending on the situtation

It’s natural to dread tough conversations. They aren’t comfortable and they aren’t fun. However, there are steps you can take to ensure that these discussions go smoothly and professionally.

As an HR manager, it is your job to develop strategies that account for these kinds of scenarios. After all, a poorly handled conversation can result in hurt feelings, misrepresentation, and even legal action in certain cases.

Yes, tough conversations are uncomfortable, but they are growth opportunities if you choose to view them that way.

It is the HR manager’s job to protect the company and the people in it. Part of what that means is making sure that you have ways to communicate with and support remote employees. Being able to have tough conversations with off-site workers is a form of support, especially if they are not aware of where they are falling short.

Great employees welcome constructive criticism and are eager for opportunities to grow. Yes, tough conversations are extremely uncomfortable, but they are growth opportunities if you choose to view them that way.

We know this is not easy. That’s why we have put together a quick list of tips for how to handle tough conversations with remote workers.

Clarity is everything

This one may seem like a given but it is something surprisingly few HR managers have mastered. Being clear and upfront about your objective is paramount when having tough talks with any employee. However, it’s especially vital when speaking with remote employees.

You want to verbalize the objective, or “point,” of the discussion so that there is little to no room for misinterpretation or miscommunication. Keep in mind also that every employee has different needs and learning styles. They may need you to explain more than you feel like you have to.

Always assume good faith.

Never assume that the remote worker knows why you are bringing a certain problem or performance issue to their attention. They cannot read your mind and they may be completely unaware of what they are doing wrong.

Along those same lines, don’t assume that any questions they ask are examples of “playing dumb” or feigning ignorance. Always assume good faith. These people are most likely not trying to cause you problems (and if they are, then a different conversation may need to happen).

Be firm but kind. Keep clarity at the front of your mind. Let your kindness and your message guide you through these tough interactions.

Avoid text conversations when/where possible

So much is lost over text: body language, inflection, tone, and even context in some cases. That is why airing your grievances with a remote employee over text, direct message, etc. is actually not as productive or as professional as you would like it to be.

It is much kinder and much more professional to address issues with remote workers over phone calls or video chat. That way, the worker on the receiving end of the unpleasantries is less likely to feel completely attacked by curt, harsh messaging. Regardless of how thorough or articulate you are over text, it won’t be as effective as scheduling a call or virtual meeting to discuss an issue you may have with them.

Moving from text conversations to phone calls can be a tough adjustment for companies forced to adapt or change their communication protocols. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic dramatically changed how organizations communicate and collaborate.

This is not easy. There are so many online tools that make communicating over text or private messages more convenient than ever. Slack and WhatsApp are 2 of the most popular ones.

Remember that great conversations are two-sided

It is important to allot time during the conversation for the remote employee to explain themselves. Sure, you may have plenty to say. And yes, there may be a number of significant issues that have become urgent. But they may have just as much (if not more) to say. In some cases, solving the issue is just a matter of bringing the problem up to the remote worker and asking how you can support them or help them improve.

In cases where the worker is aware of the issue and needs to explain themselves, then allowing a two-sided conversation instantly becomes even more important. Remember that this is a conversation, not a roast or an indictment of their character. Hear them out and treat them as a valued part of your company.

You are not calling your remote employee to berate them for their performance at work. You are also not calling them so that they can just suck it up and take it and then get back to work without a word. Communicate the issue but also let them know that you are ready to listen. That alone can make a huge difference and can help both of you come away from the conversation feeling motivated and empowered.

Hear them out and treat them as a valued part of your company.

Don’t assume that their questions or explanations are excuses, either. Establish trust and inspire them to do better.

Start and end the conversations with tact and intention

This is huge, but it is often overlooked. How you start and end a conversation with a remote worker is more important than you may think. Every second of this discussion matters and carries weight (even if you don’t think it does). Use your call wisely and think it all through before you dial your employee’s number.

Remember that to the remote employee, you are a disembodied voice over the phone. You have no shape and you have no body. You are either a disgruntled manager screaming at them that they are fired or a boss pointing out a problem and encouraging a solution. As you may have guessed, the latter is vastly more professional (and desirable!).

All of this is to say that body language is not a part of the interaction either party can see. We rely on it heavily during face-to-face interactions, but phone calls are a different beast. With that said, your message and your objective are everything. Keep it clear and stick to a script (at first) if you feel like you need one.

Flattery (“You’re the best remote worker we have ever had but…”) can actually backfire so it is best to avoid relying on that as an opener. That’s called the sandwich approach. Compliment, criticism, compliment. It is not as effective as you may think and it has the potential to come across as stilted and disingenuous.

When it comes to ending a conversation, it is important that you make sure everyone is on the same page. If they are not, then the call probably was not as productive as you wanted it to be.

Luckily, though, there are specific things you can say to check to see if they understand. “So tell me your understanding of what we’ve talked about just so everyone is clear” is a great prompt that does not require much tweaking or improvising. It is clear and direct and allows them to articulate what they heard and verbally confirm that they understand the issue and why you are calling. Forgetting this step could mean the difference between a worthwhile meeting and a waste of everyone’s time. That communication ultimately falls on you.

Feel free to play around with the wording and try out different, possibly more direct ways to make sure they get why this issue is an issue. You may find something that works better for you and sounds like something you would actually say. Don’t come across as someone you’re not.

Be cautious about video calls — they’re not always the best option

There are actually a handful of situations where having these tough conversations over video conferencing is not ideal. This may seem a bit incongruous, especially because most people assume reading body language is always helpful.

For example, letting an employee go over video may not be the best idea. It may make the conversation more painful than it needs to be. A phone call will often suffice if this is the objective of your call.

However, if you have an issue with a remote employee and you see a possible resolution, then video is hands down the better option. It is easier to get excited about a solution or a compromise if you see the person on the other end of the call responding positively through body language.

Remote workers do not have the luxury of meeting with you face-to-face in the office. They may not know right away that they are underperforming or failing to meet basic expectations. They are often hundreds (or even thousands) of miles away, typing away, in their own worlds, and blissfully unaware of the issues you have with their performance.

This is just one of many reasons why putting together effective protocols for communication with remote workers is vital. Without systems, scripts, or tactics in place, communication can fall apart incredibly quickly. This is not something you want, and it is your job as an HR manager to make sure remote communication is efficient and airtight.

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