Dear Dave: I manage many people who work remotely, and this means I have problems telling them what I want to say to them in ways that don’t scare them to death. This is especially true when I want to get an employee or a team back on track, because they have wandered away from their core projects and tasks. How can I deliver news or critical feedback the right way and hit my goal of helping my staff as opposed to making them feel like I just beat them up online? – D

Dear D: In our changing and challenging world, giving critical feedback is one of your most challenging responsibilities as a manager – and if you’re working remotely, it’s even harder. There are ways to update your approach to giving feedback in a work-from-home world. But first, you need to clearly understand why your staff might not appreciate “cyber criticism.”

The pandemic has taught us that many workers in even the most critical jobs are able to work from home effectively. I personally believe that some workers are cut out for cyber work and some hate it and can’t wait to get back to the office. There are workers in between these two types of cyber workers, and they are unsure if they like cyber work or even if they are doing a good job working remotely. I believe this “in-between” group makes up the largest part of all workers working from home.

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I think most – if not all – workers want positive reinforcement every time they do something valuable and kind of cool. When a manager is able to smile and nod their head in approval, the workers instantly feel good – and are rewarded. This nonverbal communication is mostly missing from the management of cyber work, even though the best-intentioned managers want to show signs of gratitude and agreement. Simply, we all like that “pat on the back” that we can get in live interactions and it carries through to the work being done remotely.

Key steps: Remember, your goal is to assess the work of your employees, guide them if they are making mistakes, and support them when they are down, bored or suffering from “cabin fever” (being cooped up at home and hungry for some personal, live interactions.) They need you as a coach, a cheerleader, a parent, if need be, and a colleague at all times. And never badmouth cyber work – this may make working from home even tougher.

Ask good questions: You need to understand your employee’s perception of their performance before expressing yours. Simply, create a means to generate some dialogue and show an interest in the progress of their work. Asking good questions – without grilling your employees – will establish some rapport and will define the work that needs to be done. Your goal is to be clear: clear about their roles and goals, clear about the resources available to them, and clear about timelines and due dates. But keep in mind that critiquing the quality and timeliness of their work is your primary management goal.

Start conversations by showing specific appreciation before laying out criticism: They’ll be more likely to be receptive to your feedback if they trust that you value them. Simply, if you barge into employee conversations like a “critique terrorist,” you will have a team of employees who dread your speaking to them at all. And your team of employees will never approach you with things they have discovered and ideas and innovations they have designed if they think they will only get “spanked” in a cyber meeting.

State your positive intentions and what an ideal state of progress and outcomes would be like: And show support for your team. Something as simple as “I’m with you all the way on this thing” can go a long way in making the employees feel like you have their back. And please, clarify what should not be done and what would lead the team in the wrong direction.

Ask your employee to state their key takeaways from the conversation – Find out what they learned and what questions they still may have. Show sincerity when asking for their feedback and express that what they may be telling you is important for getting some work back on track and creating more positive results. You may even want to give employees “free time” to work on some innovative and creative ideas. They would feel like you gave them a sense of power and control.

We’re all under intense stress from the pandemic. Taking care to deliver your feedback with clarity and sensitivity will help people focus on the reality of your message, even in a remote environment.

Contact Dave Conrad with questions or comments at conradd@augsburg.edu. Conrad is an associate professor of business at Augsburg University in Rochester.