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Remote Work

How to Handle Difficult Conversations With Remote Employees


As a manager leading a team, dealing with conflicts is just part of the job. No matter how much you try to avoid it, there will always be some or the other conflicts among team members. What matters is how you resolve those conflicts and handle difficult conversations with your team about it.

While initiating difficult conversations can be hard to do even under the best of circumstances, initiating and managing difficult conversations with remote employees is a whole other ball game.

That is why when you are in a remote team and you need to initiate a difficult conversation virtually, a little preparation can go a long way towards making the meeting a success.

Why is it tougher to tackle difficult conversations with remote employees?

As humans, we are used to communicating in face-to-face settings and small groups. Direct in-person conversations make it easier for us to read the situation by assessing the body language of the other person and then respond to it accordingly.

But when you are conducting virtual conversations, the ability of both your employees to read the situation and understand the context of the conversation without any visual cues diminishes greatly which can, in turn, lead to more confusion and more opportunities for the conversation to go into the wrong direction.

To successfully lead remote teams it is important for remote team managers to tackle difficult conversations a little differently.

Here are some effective techniques to approach difficult conversations with remote employees:

Approach the conversation with empathy

It is never easy bringing up difficult issues like performance problems, especially when you already know that the employees have had a rough few months. When it comes to virtual conversations, you need to be as articulate and as kind as possible in order to make the employees understand that the focus of the conversation isn’t on the employees themselves but the issues at hand.

You also have to be careful about the words that you use to ensure you don’t come off as rude in any way. So, instead of directly saying, “The reports that you have submitted are disappointing and substandard,” you could say, “Your submitted reports were not as detailed as they needed to be. We should edit the reports to make them better. Here are a few ways we can do that.”

When you are about to go in and have difficult conversations, the chances are, things are already in a bad state, and you need to make sure they don’t get derailed completely.

Employees may already be irritated and frustrated over the issue, and as the person responsible for handling difficult conversations and resolving the issues, you don’t want to do anything that could make employees erupt. It is important to take a problem-solving approach to difficult conversations.

Put all your assumptions aside

It’s common for employees to have assumptions about their colleagues in the workplace and when wrong, these assumptions can have devastating effects on your team’s performance and culture as a whole.

When you are in a remote team where you get little to no face-to-face interactions, it can further aggravate your assumptions about your team members, affect your rapport with them, and make conducting difficult conversations a big challenge.

That is why, before having a conversation with your employees, it is crucial to check your assumptions. Business leaders and team managers need to be more open to other people’s perspectives. If you aren’t sure how to diffuse a particular situation in the team, listen first and try to understand the different viewpoints of the employees.

The idea is to constantly test, break apart, analyze and improve assumptions in order to improve your problem solving and conflict resolution skills.

Encourage video meetings for difficult conversations

Approaching difficult conversations can feel awkward, especially when you are dealing with remote employees that you don’t usually interact with every day. And it can be tempting to drop a quick message or email instead of scheduling a one on one meeting just to avoid the awkward conversation altogether

But written communication, no matter how well-written and articulated, can sometimes give off the wrong impression to others. Employees may feel you are reprimanding them on their behavior instead of looking to resolve the issue.

Audio calls are definitely a step up but they don’t let you notice the body language of the other people on the call which can also lead to miscommunication.

A video call is the best for discussing difficult conversations with remote employees. It gives you the opportunity to read the body language and expressions of others and resolve any questions or queries that they might have in real-time for a quick and mutually acceptable resolution.

Focus on resolving the issue

You can’t always know where the conversation will go once everyone involved starts talking, but you can make sure the focus of the conversation is always on resolving the issue and not discussing the same problem over and over again.

When you start the conversation, outline the main concerns, point out what is at stake, and then give every employee in the meeting an opportunity to share their views about the issue at hand. Focus more on listening to everyone else’s perspectives instead of offering a resolution right away because employees should feel heard, seen, and understood.

You should also alleviate the frustration and anger in employees by having heartfelt conversations with them. Fighting over who is right and who is wrong isn’t going to work — You need to understand the root cause of the issue to resolve it completely and make sure it doesn’t come up again.

Schedule a follow-up

The biggest mistake remote team managers make is to breathe a sigh of relief right after finishing up a difficult virtual conversation with their team members. Just initiating conversations to resolve a conflict is not enough. You also need to follow up with employees to discuss whether the situation has improved for them or if they need any further actions or support from your end.

Establish trust and transparency in your remote team

Lack of trust and transparency in teams is one of the biggest reasons for conflicts which can eventually lead you to handle difficult conversations with employees routinely.

You can establish transparency and gain employee trust in a remote team by introducing tools like a digital workplace that promote transparency.

A digital workplace allows remote employees to access all the projects, processes, cases, and communication through one centralized platform. More importantly, a digital workplace makes it easier to track the team’s progress, thus eliminating the need for constant follow-ups.

Employees always know what their coworkers are up to and managers can keep track of all the team communication through dedicated communication channels in order to resolve issues before they even arrive.