When an employee who works in the same building as you is struggling, you can pull the person into your office or conference room, and hash out everything. Issues are often brought to the surface and resolved more quickly, either because you notice them more quickly or because employees feel comfortable enough with you to talk about the challenges they are experiencing.
When you lead remote employees, that often doesn’t happen. Issues aren’t immediately evident to you, or remote employees may struggle in silence. Especially in cases where you hired a virtual employee, rather than letting a former co-located employee start telecommuting, you didn’t have all the face-time that makes building rapport and nurturing trust much easier.
Regular, consistent communication (preferably via video chat) with virtual employees is critical to gauging their state of mind, helping them to problem solve and building trust. Making contact is the first step. Then when you notice something is off, either because you’ve uncovered mistakes, see performance slipping or just sense some concern in their voice, ask these questions:
How are things going?
Think of this one as a bit of an icebreaker. You don’t want to just assume employees are struggling. Offer them an opportunity to open up about work. If they don’t offer much, dig deeper with more specific questions. For example, “How are you progressing on …?” “How did you feel about the results of the XYZ project?” or “In your opinion, what went wrong with …?” Add “Tell me more ….” to encourage them on to keep talking, share more, and uncover feelings. This stage is all about getting virtual employees to open up to you.
What makes you think that?
This one won’t apply all the time. However, if virtual employees say something that blindsides or surprises you or that you feel is outright wrong, use this one to gain more insight. For example, if an employee says “I don’t feel supported,” “I feel like I am always the last one to receive information,” “I’m being required to meet unfair demands/deadlines,” or “I’m rarely asked to weigh in on these important decisions,” ask this question to dig a little deeper. Perhaps those feelings are warranted and you can do a better job of communicating or including the person. Additionally, during the discussion, employees may see how their perceptions, inferences and assumptions are negatively influencing their thinking, and they will realize that things aren’t as they seem. Either way, the goal here is to help virtual employees step back for a second and think about things clearly.
What is your goal?
Whether you use the word goal, objective, purpose, priority or some other related word, this question serves at least two strong purposes. It can help people clarify their focus, and perhaps re-calibrate their actions based on their answer. When employees are in the weeds it is easy to lose sight of the overall objective. They can become consumed by a woe-is-me attitude and focus only on the problems and challenges. This question is the first step toward troubleshooting and problem solving.
What is your recommendation/solution?
In almost all cases, you should allow employees to offer a solution. That is the best way to gain their buy-in and develop their problem-solving skills. When it comes to virtual employees, it’s mandatory because you need them to be more autonomous because distance can make it more difficult for them to run every decision past you. Don’t just give them a solution; make them come up with one. Asking doesn’t guarantee you will take their advice, but it does encourage them to think about solutions, not just identify problems. The more you require them to do that, the more they’ll do it on their own, and they’ll be better equipped to resolve challenges without your input.
How can you influence the outcome?
This one is about accountability. When you ask people this question, especially in a challenging situation, you encourage them to move past blame and being a victim and on to taking action. They must be a part of the solution.
How can I help?
This question is all about determining what or how you can help them succeed. When you ask this question you are seen as supportive, helpful and open. This question asked earnestly also builds their trust, especially if you take action and actually help them. Plus, sometimes you will need to step in because they won’t have the authority or resources to resolve an issue on their own.
Remember: One of the most important things you can do as a leader is to clear obstacles for employees so that they can do their best work. Make sure that you are actively and proactively looking for the challenges in all your employees’ way and taking immediate action to help them overcome them.