By Carla Novacevski

The COVID-19 pandemic has completely transformed how businesses perceive remote working arrangements. Pre-pandemic, remote working arrangements were avoided for the physical divide they created amongst staff and the strain that this placed on a team’s ability to cooperate. However, with the magnitude of adaptation undertaken throughout the pandemic, many businesses continue to allow or even encourage, employees to work from home despite the easing of COVID-19 restrictions.

There are many benefits to employers and employees alike that flow from working remotely including having a better work-life balance, spending less time commuting, increasing job satisfaction and even financial advantages. Allowing employees to work remotely, and therefore allowing them to experience these benefits motivates employees to be productive and successful in their role and increases staff retention.

However, allowing your employees to work unsupervised comes with certain challenges. There will be times when an employer needs to have a difficult or uncomfortable conversation with an employee which, when conducted remotely, raises additional considerations employers must be aware of.

Here we answer four questions about how to manage difficult conversations remotely and explain the things businesses must remember when handling them to avoid mistakes.

1. Why does working from home make difficult conversations harder?

Communication is most effective when undertaken in small groups in face-to-face settings. This is because individuals can assess the verbal, physical, and emotional cues exhibited by those around them. This enhances the quality of a person’s response and the overall value of the interaction. On this reasoning, conducting conversations remotely increases the risk of an ill impression or misunderstanding and, ultimately, a conversation going wrong.

Employers must find ways to manage these conversations in a constructive, fair, and appropriate manner.

2. How should employers manage these conversations?

Choose the appropriate communication method:

When having a remote conversation, you should choose a communication device or method appropriate to the situation. For example, when reminding an employee to send an email or complete an overdue task, a phone call or email would be appropriate.

Where the conversation relates to something that could be emotionally challenging, such as a disciplinary process or performance counselling meetings, a video conference call may be more appropriate. This is because it best mimics a physical meeting and therefore incorporates the familiar and personal element that distant communication lacks.

Furthermore, video calls promote a sense of accountability. When both parties can be seen by one another, it requires them to maintain active listening, and demonstrate their interest in the topic which can be overlooked through texts and emails.

Employers should note that in some circumstances an employee may prefer to have the conversation via phone or another method of communication. This may be the case where an employee is unable to conduct the video call privately – they could have children or another adult working from home in the same space. Additionally, they may also be uncomfortable displaying themselves on camera. Forcing an employee to submit to a video call in these uncomfortable circumstances can create a hostile environment that is less beneficial for communication than text or email.

However, employers shouldn’t blindly resort to the preference of their employees. Communicating via email or text remains undesirable for the ease with which such correspondence can be misinterpreted. Hence, it may be most preferable to conduct a video call and then follow up with written confirmation of all outcomes.

3. Always be prepared

Conducting a difficult conversation remotely doesn’t allow an employer to overlook their requirement to prepare; the standard of preparation required for a face-to-face meeting must be maintained. This involves listing questions, collating relevant evidence/documents, and maintaining procedural fairness before the meeting. Procedural fairness includes providing the employee with advance notice of the meeting and the reason for it, scheduling the meeting at a suitable time, and allowing the employee the opportunity to have a support person present. If the support person can’t be physically present with the employee, you may need to invite them as a third party to the conference call.

Furthermore, employers are encouraged to mute alerts during the virtual meeting so that they maintain a strict focus on the matter at hand.

Finally, difficult conversations should be dealt with formally. This doesn’t mean an employer must avoid colloquial language or smiling, but it does mean that you must present yourself seriously. For example, hosting a video call in your local pub or on a deck chair by the pool isn’t the best look, nor is setting your Zoom or Microsoft Teams background to a theme park. How is one to focus on information, contribute to the discussion or reflect on the matter when all they can hear or see are distractions? To extract the greatest value possible from this meeting, it’s integral that professionalism is maintained.

4. Don’t forget to follow up

As you would with a face-to-face discussion, the virtual meeting should conclude with the setting of clear expectations or next steps. Discuss with the employee what will occur moving forward; what do you expect them to do? How can they achieve these expectations? Who can the employee contact for support? Is there a deadline for the achievement of company expectations?

Ensure that a clear line of communication is arranged moving forward, whether that be through weekly video call catchups or daily text messages for example. The employee must feel regulated but most importantly supported, both throughout the meeting and following.

It’s advisable that following the meeting, a record of the discussion detailing the main talking points is distributed amongst the parties. This not only reiterates the core elements of the discussion but opens a line of communication so that the employee can raise any outstanding questions.

Having difficult conversations with employees can be tough, even more so when the employee in question is a remote worker. As more businesses continue to embrace the flexibility that remote working options bring to both the business and employees, employers must adapt to the circumstances and understand that these difficult conversations will directly impact the business.

If any of this information has raised questions about handling difficult conversations with remote workers or you have another workplace matter, please reach out to our workplace relations experts via our 24/7 Telephone Advisory Service.

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Carla Novacevski is a Workplace Relations Advisor based at HR Assured’s Melbourne Office. In her role at HR Assured, Carla tends to client queries via the Telephone Advisory Service. She is currently completing a Bachelor of Commerce and Law, majoring in Accounting, and is passionate about expanding her knowledge through a variety of placements in multiple areas of law.