Creating a Culture of Feedback in Your Remote Team

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In “Originals”, Adam Grant shares an unusual story about a CEO.

“At the software company Index Group, CEO Tom Gerry asked a consultant to tell him everything he did wrong in front of his entire staff of roughly a hundred employees. By role modelling receptivity to feedback, employees across the company became more willing to challenge him - and one another.” (Originals, Kindle loc 3152)

Talk about leading by example and really creating a culture of feedback! As I was reading I was thinking, “How could this be translated into ongoing behaviour or practice, in a virtual/remote team?”

As if reading my mind, the author of Originals, who is also a University Professor, replied to me in the next paragraph with a personal example.

Grant collects anonymous feedback from his students, focusing on “constructive criticism and suggestions for improvement”. He then emails the full set of suggestions to the entire class and summarises the findings in the next session- inviting more feedback on his interpretation of the suggestions, as well as telling the students how he proposes to address the issues raised.

“That’s an interesting idea,” I thought. (If you listen to the 21st Century Work Life podcast, you’ll be aware of my preference for the word “interesting”.)

I’m not a fan of anonymous feedback and wouldn’t recommend that you regularly seek feedback in this way from your team - although I am aware that in some hierarchical systems, like a University, it might be the only way of finding out what people really think. However, I can see no better way for a manager to nurture a culture of feedback than by inviting feedback from team members (e.g. via email or private message), and then sharing a condensed version of that feedback in a meeting or as an internal blog post, for example, as well as how she will incorporate it into her work.

Feedback can then  turn into a conversation, rather than a one-directional approach.

Furthermore, considering how damaging a bad manager can be to a team and organisation, it’s worth formalising how to receive feedback from our team members.

I’m not recommending that you immediately follow the examples above, but I do suggest that you consider whether your team members could do with a more deliberate approach to regularly reviewing their performance. And yes, that includes you as a manager. You’re also a member of your team.  

Make Giving and Receiving Feedback Easy

One of the dangers of working apart from other team members is that we find it difficult to gauge how we’re doing; we start to wonder whether our work is any good and whether we are contributing enough to the team. One of your responsibilities as a manager is to create a culture of feedback, and this applies whether you are colocated or remote.  

“Giving feedback” is not something many people enjoy, especially when you are asking someone to change their behaviour. When you are working with people remotely, it’s tempting to always find something else that needs to be said/done/discussed. Unless there is a formal process in place (even if it’s a get-together every three months to check how we’re doing), no-one might receive any feedback on their work and behaviour until it’s too late.  And then, if we only give feedback when something is wrong, we’ll associate “feedback” with “problems”... so you see where this might all lead to.

There are systems and tools we can use to regularly give feedback on remote teams. As manager, you can set a regular schedule to meet one-to-one (on audio, video). Set up these chats so they are conversations, not one-way reports from either of you. Find out how team members are doing, what they’re struggling with, what they’re proud of, what they need from you.

Mention any progress you’ve seen recently, or ask whether there are any blocks that are delaying progress. Point out any helpful team behaviours that have suddenly stopped and find out what the reasons might be for this. Provide the space for them to brag.

Stay on Schedule

The most important thing about these one-to-ones is that they are regular, even if sometimes they last just five minutes. It’s important for both of you to know you have a slot where you can have uncomfortable conversations when you need to, rather than expecting problems every time a one-to-one meeting is arranged.

If your team is a true team (one in which people’s tasks are interdependent and people need to work together to achieve their goals), you will need some sort of system or set-up whereby team members can discuss how they’re affecting each other’s work and how team members are functioning together.

As always, how you build your feedback system will depend on the nature of your team, and how individuals prefer to communicate and receive feedback. For now, here are some suggestions:

- Set up a system that matches different people on a one-to-one basis regularly to meet up synchronously online. (For an automated way of doing this, see ; for a more ‘person-led’ system, see how Trello used to match people up - they've now automated their system.)

As a team, you can agree on a structure for these conversations, so you always know how to kick them off. I particular like Automattic’s 3-2-1-Oh process:

The team member reports on 3 things they have done well, 2 areas/skills which need improvement, 1 way in which the team lead and the organisation can support them. Finally, the “Oh” brings with one or two sentences on what they’re most excited/grateful for in the organisation and how they’d like to develop their career.

(For more on how Automattic incorporate feedback into their regular practice, read:

- Agree on a day of the week where you send each other feedback (via Direct Message, via email…). If you are a small group (around five of you) you might want to do this for every person on your team; if you are a large group, divide yourselves into “feedback circles” or pairs.

- Have monthly or bi-monthly online meetings as a team to review your process, not necessarily your results. Answer questions like, “Is communication effective?” “Do you feel supported?” “Are there any blocks you constantly come across?” Whether the answer to these is “yes” or “no”, make sure you ask why. (And it’s just as important to understand why something is working, so it can be sustained, as it is to identify exactly what needs to change.)

- Establish a way of giving permission for immediate feedback when we see team member behaviour that we find unhelpful. This might seem a bit odd, so let me give you a bit of context. When we are working with someone in the same space, we often gather a lot of information about a person’s current mood and their general state of mind. If we know them relatively well, it’s easy to gauge whether they are in the mood to receive feedback, or even to listen to a bit of criticism.

When we work away from others, we lose a lot of this information. We can’t see whether someone has had a really bad day and our little hint at the fact that they never seem to be finishing a piece of work by the time they promised, might just feel like they’re being kicked when they’re down. Sometimes we feel like we can take any kind of feedback, and we welcome it. Other times, we feel like the Universe is against us and we just need to get through the next few weeks as best as we can.

So having a system whereby you can first ask permission to give immediate, corrective feedback might be useful. For example, if you use a platform like Slack, you can allocate an icon that represents the permission request. All the other team member then needs to do is to reply with a green icon or a red icon - or whatever your team agrees upon. Only on a “green light” reply do you then send your feedback. (Credit for coming up with this also goes to Sam and Yoris who were part of the Happy Melly team when I was working there and we were coming up with a system for giving feedback.)

Don't Forget About Your Own Development

Finally, as a manager, ask for feedback yourself.

If you have difficulty framing the question, give it a different focus. Ask, “Is there anything I could be doing to help your work?” or “Are there times when you feel I’m in your way?” or ask about specific aspects of your work that you think could be improved.

You can even dare to ask, “Is there something I’m already doing that you want to make sure I sustain?”

Yes, there might be things we’re already doing well. Let’s make sure we know what they are.

This and other blog posts have been collated into our book on leading remote teams: Thinking Remote: Inspiration for Leaders of Distributed Teams. Available in paperback, ebook and audiobook.

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