Handling Difficult Conversations Remotely

by Roberta Matuson

No one could have accurately predicted that one day just about the entire world would go remote. But that’s precisely what happened when the coronavirus hit and pretty much brought everyone to a standstill. Within days of the official announcement of a pandemic, employers shut down their offices and sent workers home, leaving no time to train leaders on how to best manage remote workers. As a result, managers were left to figure many things out on their own. This “experiment” went better for some managers than others.

Suddenly, it was no longer possible to meet someone face-to-face. We became experts on the use of Zoom and Microsoft Teams overnight. Video conferencing equipment, such as computer video cameras and ring lights, immediately sold out and were on backorder for months. People made do with what they had, which in some cases made it next to impossible to see someone’s face when speaking to them. This was unfortunate, as you can tell a lot about how well a conversation is going based on visual cues. But what happens when you can no longer read a person’s face because the lighting in their home office room isn’t quite ready for prime time? Or a bad internet connection has them turning their video camera off and going into audio mode only? You learn quickly how to adapt.

As experienced leaders of remote workers know, the need to have difficult conversations with employees doesn’t go away when employees are remote. The way you handle challenging remote interactions will ultimately reflect on you and the company. The last thing you want to do is be like Uber and make headlines for the wrong reasons. In May of 2020, Uber laid off over 3,000 employees in a three-minute Zoom call, which was recorded and shared globally by someone on the call. The backlash that occurred from this error in judgment was felt around the globe. I bring this up because learning what not to do in situations is just as important as learning best practices. Never lose sight of the fact that those you’re engaging in conversation with are people who deserve to be treated with respect and compassion.

Avoid mass firings via Zoom or any other platform, and you’ll be one step closer to doing things right. In fact, eliminate the practice of mass firings and you’ll be that much further ahead than the competition in terms of being the kind of organization where people love to come to work and customers love to do business.

Lots of leaders have been working remotely for years now, which means we can learn a thing or two from their experience. Here are some things to consider that may be different from those in-person meetings you’ve grown accustomed to.

Consider the Place and Time Zones

During the pandemic, many people picked up and moved some to different time zones. Companies quickly learned that a meeting normally set to begin at 9:00 a.m. ET no longer worked for folks on the West Coast. Before setting a time for what may be an awkward interaction, consider where the other person is located, and do your best to pick a time when they’ll be able to fully focus their attention on the matter at hand.

Also, consider where the employee maybe when you’re having the conversation. With so many people working from home now, privacy is at a premium. An employee may be distracted if they’ve got a young child running around their house or a spouse working nearby and may not fully take in your message. Give them a heads up that what you’re about to discuss is best said in privacy, so they can move to a quiet place if need be.

Request That Cameras Be On

Some people choose to leave their video cameras off, as they find looking at their own image to be distracting. However, there are certain situations where cameras on works best. When setting up a meeting, be sure to let the other person know that you’d like the video conferencing feature to be on. This will help to avoid what could be an embarrassing situation — being asked to turn your camera on when you’re not “camera ready.”

Put Yourself in the Other Person’s Shoes

While it may be easier for you to get things off your mind with a quick email, that may not be what’s best for the person on the receiving end. While you’re feeling relieved that you’ve gotten something off your chest, the other person is left to figure out what exactly your email means. Email can be easily misinterpreted. Think of all the wasted hours and undue stress that one email can cause. Then take your finger off the send button and, instead, schedule a time to speak or simply give the other person a call.

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from CAN WE TALK? Seven Principles for Managing Difficult Conversations at Work (Kogan Page, September 28, 2021) by Roberta Chinsky Matuson.

Roberta Matuson is the author of CAN WE TALK? Seven Principles for Managing Difficult Conversations at Work (Kogan Page, September 2021). She is a globally known thought leader who helps leaders achieve dramatic improvements in employee engagement, retention, productivity and profitability. She is the CEO and founder of Matuson Consulting, where she works with Fortune 500 companies and mid-sized, emerging companies to create teams that achieve extraordinary results. She is known as “The Talent Maximizer®.” She is a seasoned speaker; author of six books and blogs for Fast Company, Glassdoor, Forbes and Thrive Global; and frequently cited in national media.

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