Whether you’re asking for a raise, requesting a modified work schedule, or talking out your issues with a co-worker, tough conversations at work are always difficult. But when you work remotely, these touchy conversations become even more difficult to navigate: How do I bring it up? Should I have the conversation over the phone or on a video call? Or should I wait until this conversation can happen face-to-face?
By 2020, the mobile workforce will grow to more than 105 million remote employees: nearly three-quarters of the total U.S. workforce, according to IDC. That means the need for remote workers to have tough, awkward conversations isn’t going away—in fact, these instances will only increase.
So if you oversee remote workers, or are a remote manager yourself, here are a few tips on how to approach and hold those difficult conversations when in-person just isn’t an option.
Be Mindful of Time Zones
With team members spread across multiple time zones, it’s helpful (and fair) to set clear standards for scheduling meetings. When possible, try to avoid holding brainstorms and important client meetings if it means asking a colleague to dial in at an unreasonable time (such as 5 A.M. or 10 P.M.) Since some meetings will inevitably conflict with at least one employee’s time zone, managers may want to create a rotation so that the same people aren’t constantly dialing into calls outside of their normal business hours.
Facilitate Meaningful Small Talk
One of the most challenging aspects of managing a distributed team is replicating the close bonds that form between people who work within the same four walls. Technology can’t always replace the value of in-person communication, but there are ways audio and video conferencing platforms can help recreate the magic. Managers must make it a point to carve out “unstructured time”—a few minutes for small talk and spontaneous conversation about work, weekend plans or last night’s “Westworld” episode—at the beginning or end of team check-ins. Prioritizing opportunities for virtual bonding unites teams regardless of location or culture, paving the way for stronger, more productive working relationships going forward.
Establish Etiquette for Tough Conversations
Difficult conversations about raises, internal conflicts or performance feedback are inevitable, whether your team sits next to each other or works across three time zones. In these scenarios, the right communication platform can mean the difference between a meaningful conversation or an awkward encounter. Collaboration apps, chat and email may be fine for letting a colleague know you want to schedule a few minutes to talk about a sensitive topic, but not for airing your grievances. For almost any serious discussion, video conferencing should be remote teams’ go-to channel. Video gives employees the benefit of reading each other’s body language and making eye contact, ensuring all parties are engaged and understood.
Prioritize Augmented Supervisor Communication
Employees value frequent communication with their supervisors in order to gauge their progress toward career advancement. But working remotely takes those in-person conversations out of the equation. For remote workers, simply communicating with their supervisor throughout the day over email isn’t enough to reduce their anxieties about career advancement. That’s why companies should augment email-based communication with more direct methods of connection. By implementing tools such as video conferencing, employers can give their remote workers a channel that replicates the face-to-face communication they value.
Build a Culture that Values Remote Work
Without a workplace culture that values remote work, employees may feel that the practice is frowned upon. To eliminate this perception, business leaders should work to create an environment that supports mobility and affirms its equal value to in-office work. Focus on the outcome and not the method when evaluating teams, and reinforce that where the work gets done is less important than the work itself.
By implementing more direct supervisor communication and cementing a culture of support, companies can actively reduce remote employee concerns about effective communication and career advancement. Embracing services that enhance connectivity among remote workers might not make the tough conversations any easier, but it will allow them to occur without additional stress.
Dennis Collins is senior director of marketing for West Unified Communication Services, a conferencing services provider. In his role, Collins raises awareness of West UC’s comprehensive unified communications solutions.