To keep remote teams happy and productive, little things matter

By Deanna Troust, principal, strategy & communications 

I’ve talked with hundreds of employees at a wide range of organizations about what they want out of their workplace cultures. As usually happens with qualitative research, themes emerge. One that’s important but seems absent from the advice about workplace dynamics that’s circulating right now is this: Little things matter. Sometimes, more than anything else.

Take delivering feedback for example. In a remote world, we of course have to be more intentional about checking in with our staff and ensuring our feedback loops still work. Video conferencing is having its day but some conversations, such as delivering challenging feedback one-on-one, are better via traditional conference call. But what can be equally important for staff is what leaders and colleagues do in the moment, during those touchpoints that take place frequently throughout the day.

Let’s say a team member works hard on a report, finishing late at night due to some distractions during the day. She does the right thing by sending the report first thing the next morning instead of emailing it after-hours. Her supervisor, who’s fine with this timeline, receives the report and promptly sends back some line edits. The process has gone well, right? Yet the team member is still left feeling unsure about whether her deliverable was well-received or not.

What went wrong is something that may be considered too small to reinforce but is critical in a remote work environment: The supervisor jumped right into editing without acknowledging receipt or the effort the team member had just put in. Skipping over these simple things can create worry – that the document wasn’t received, that it was just OK, or that it missed the mark, but given the deadline, will have to suffice.

Remote work also creates an over-reliance on email, which is really a terrible channel for delivering feedback. When senders are pressed for time, they can generate emails that are overly transactional, which can have the same effect on the recipient as being spoken to in a curt way. Many employees will feel these small things are too petty to address so they can accumulate over time.

We talk a lot about micro-aggressions, or those small behaviors that can erode a culture of inclusion over time. This isn’t that. But given the difference these little things can make they need a name, too – I call them micro-acknowledgements.

Here are five micro-acknowledgements that teams can use and practice:

1)      When someone sends something to you, be sure to acknowledge receipt – even if you won’t be reviewing it till later. Better yet, say thank you.
2)     If the sender has put effort into what they’re sending, acknowledge that also – regardless of its quality. The goal is to respond with grace and authenticity, not to sugar-coat. (Although we all should default to giving our team members permission to make some mistakes during this time.)
3)     If the deliverable is good, say so. This is what your team member is looking for, so don’t “bury the lead.”
4)      If you have feedback on a deliverable that’s complicated or overly negative, schedule an edit call to discuss. Relying solely on email and tracked changes/comments is far more time-consuming and apt to create confusion and concern. Hearing the reasons behind your changes can feel like a gift, and it creates a teachable moment
5)      Consider calling your changes “suggestions,” which acknowledges the author’s ownership. If they’re not really suggestions, he or she probably knows that

In addition and with frequency, ask team members how they’re doing. This advice is not just for supervisors – we should all be doing this with our colleagues, the way we are with family and friends.

Some of us are overly busy right now, others unfortunately are not. Luckily these feedback tips are super easy to do and can be used when the team is in full swing or working on back-burner projects. And like most inclusive behaviors, they can be used in our personal lives as well.