The role of feedback in a flex work model
By Madison Hanscom, Ph.D.
Feedback is one of the most important resources at work. It can be used to energize people, fuel their growth, guide them in the right direction, inform future behavior, clarify expectations, and help them to attain goals. Thus, it is central to motivation, performance, and even workplace safety (1,2). As the world is embracing remote work more than ever, many fear this will be associated with a lack of feedback when compared to the typical face-to-face workplace. This is a reasonable concern! A great deal of informal feedback is exchanged within an office environment. For instance, you might be accustomed to an impromptu huddle in the hallway after a meeting to discuss what went well and what did not. You also might be missing those “water cooler conversations” with your boss. All of these feedback components should still continue in a remote setting. In fact, researchers have shown that more frequent feedback in virtual teams is associated with higher motivation, satisfaction, performance, and learning (3, 4).
What does great feedback look like?
Leaders sometimes forget how fundamental it is to provide effective feedback. Fortunately, great feedback is pretty basic. First and foremost — it is specific. It targets someone’s behavior and not who they are as a person. For instance, if you tell someone they are too high energy and outgoing, that is picking at their character (who they are as a person = hard to change) and not at their behavior (easier to change). Instead you might let them know specifically what behavior they need to improve (e.g., talking over coworkers during team meetings). This type of feedback is much less frustrating for the person on the receiving end because they are able to change something specific in order to improve. Second, great feedback includes details on how to develop. It will include coaching that is specific and actionable for what to do in the future. Third, the timing is right. Great feedback doesn’t come a week after an employee does something great or poorly — it is immediate. People are more likely to change their behavior in the future if they receive feedback in close proximity to what they did that needs to change or continue. Fourth, the pace is right. It is not wise to rely on performance appraisal meetings to give feedback. This should be a more frequent process that includes both informal (a quick email or phone call to touch base) and formal (regularly scheduled 1:1 meetings) components.
What are key action items for those leading remote or flex workers?
• Schedule, schedule… and schedule some more. Missing those impromptu meetings in the office or the conversations at the water cooler? Those should not disappear in a flex work model. Instead of relying on them to happen organically, schedule them in! Small feedback sessions should be scheduled as follow-up debriefs after critical meetings or complex project wrap-ups. Virtual water cooler time should be scheduled to brainstorm and innovate. Virtual coffees should be arranged. Most importantly, one-on-one meetings should be scheduled (with every employee) at a frequency that makes sense depending on the amount of people you supervise (e.g., weekly if you have a small team, perhaps every other week for a larger team).
• Set reminders. Some leaders find it more challenging to give frequent feedback in a remote setting because they do not interact with their people face-to-face. Out of sight, out of mind. In these situations, it is helpful to set reminders to have more informal feedback moments. These reminders will eventually get you in the habit to give feedback more regularly.
• Integrate multiple sources. Consider a multi-source feedback component within your performance management system. Feedback can be very powerful when it comes from several coworkers, subordinates, and supervisors. This also helps to get everyone comfortable with giving feedback in multiple directions.
• Give them voice. Many individuals struggle with feedback that only goes in one direction. Most prefer to have some voice in the feedback process. Thus, when working virtually, it is important to schedule feedback sessions over the phone or video so it can function as a two-way conversation.
• Focus on the positive. All too often we give and receive negative feedback without giving much attention to the positive. Although constructive feedback is important and opportunities for improvement must be addressed, it is just as significant to include positive reinforcement. Make sure this is specific. Don’t just tell someone they are “doing a good job.” Let them know which deliverable or which meeting, for example. Positive feedback is incredibly motivating and just as important as constructive feedback.
• Have a future focus. Research shows that feedback is extremely effective when it is focused on the future and has an emphasis on strengths (5). When delivering feedback, focus on what has gone well and where to continue. Have your employees reflect on these questions: Consider the times when you obtained goals with flying colors — what did you do? What were the circumstances that helped? How can you do this more in the future and apply it to other goals?
• Pair it with goal setting. Feedback is more likely to lead to desired behavior change when it is also associated with goal setting (6). Be sure to set goals with your employees that are mutually constructed and agreed upon, specific, attainable, and challenging.
• Have healthy expectations. Don’t assume that your feedback will lead to results. Research has shown that feedback only will lead to positive changes in performance about a third of the time (7). This is because so many things matter when it comes to job performance. People need the coaching, they need training, they need to be motivated, and they need many other resources. Ensure people have everything they need in addition to great feedback to ensure you are acquiring high performance in your people.
• Ask for feedback. When leaders solicit feedback themselves, this signals that this is a valued practice within the culture of the organizational. Leaders should also uphold a climate of continual learning and improvement by asking their employees and other leaders for both positive reactions and constructive criticism. After all, there’s always something to work on!
At Propulo Consulting, we partner with you to improve the world of work. Our team has the expertise to help your business implement a sensible Flex Work strategy without pain. We work with you to ensure your company culture and processes develop accordingly during or after a Flex Work transition so you can continue to deliver results for your organization and customers. Please visit our website for the latest insights and research into flexible work.
(1) Humphrey, S. E., Nahrgang, J. D., & Morgeson, F. P. (2007). Integrating motivational, social, and contextual work design features: a meta-analytic summary and theoretical extension of the work design literature. Journal of applied psychology, 92(5), 1332.
(2) Laitinen, H., & Ruohomäki, I. (1996). The effects of feedback and goal setting on safety performance at two construction sites. Safety science, 24(1), 61-73.
(3) Geister, S., Konradt, U., & Hertel, G. (2006). Effects of process feedback on motivation, satisfaction, and performance in virtual teams. Small group research, 37(5), 459-489.
(4) Peñarroja, V., Orengo, V., Zornoza, A., Sánchez, J., & Ripoll, P. (2015). How team feedback and team trust influence information processing and learning in virtual teams: A moderated mediation model. Computers in Human Behavior, 48, 9-16.
(5) Kluger, A. N., & Nir, D. (2010). The feedforward interview. Human Resource Management Review, 20(3), 235-246.
(6) Murphy, K. R., Cleveland, J. N., & Hanscom, M. E. (2018). Performance appraisal and management. SAGE Publications.
(7) Kluger, A. N., & DeNisi, A. (1996). The effects of feedback interventions on performance: A historical review, a meta-analysis, and a preliminary feedback intervention theory. Psychological bulletin, 119(2), 254.
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