Learning & Development

How to Prepare for Difficult Conversations Remotely

During ‘The Great Resignation,’ 4.4 million people left jobs in September and another 4.2 million left in October, according to the U.S. Labor Department. Most of these employees are quitting because they are finding better work environments and higher pay.

remote work conversation

Therefore, every manager and HR professional is focused right now on employee retention – especially as the average cost of replacing an employee is approximately 21% of their salary, according to the Center for American Progress. How difficult news is relayed and how difficult conversations are managed are crucial to ensuring employees continue to feel validated, heard and understood within an organization.

And, poorly managing a difficult conversation can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

A virtual conversation is innately different from an in-person conversation because we can’t detect the ‘energy’ and subtle cues, so must rely on tone of voice and expressions instead. And, if managed incorrectly, a difficult conversation may lead to additional issues and start a spiral. So, it’s crucial that managers and HR professionals carefully relay difficult news to employees and ensure they are well prepared for them.

Determine The Key Message for Delivery

Once a problem has been identified and you’ve decided to have a difficult conversation, be sure you understand exactly what you want to get out of the conversation. For example, if the conversation is about an employee’s continued poor performance and how they need to be placed on a performance improvement plan, perhaps they need a reminder on accountability and productivity at work or need to prioritize on-the-job training to ensure they are improving performance. By keeping the end goal in sight, the conversation will be kept on track.

Set a Dedicated Time

For difficult conversations, be sure to schedule a time in advance where you and the employee have enough time to talk and can be undisturbed throughout the conversation. Impromptu calls for having a difficult conversation can come off as brash and may mean you’re unprepared for them and the employee is caught completely off guard by it. With enough time set aside, you can carefully navigate the conversation without rushing through it and also ensure the employee is understanding what you’re relaying to them.

Turn On Your Video

Trying to showcase empathy and understanding when having a difficult conversation is key and can be achieved with a video call instead of just a phone call. By being able to see the employee, you can pick up on nonverbal cues and also remain fully present in the conversation.

By turning off self-view, only the employee will be visible on the screen so your focus remains solely on them. Using a blurred background also eliminates visual distractions and helps both of you to stay focused.

Encourage Two-Way Conversation

A difficult conversation should start with you relaying the tough news as specifically as possible and then giving the employee an opportunity to respond. If you are concerned that the employee is not quite talkative, that would be an opportunity to prepare some open-ended questions to allow them to respond.

This would allow the difficult conversation to segue into more of an open coaching session versus a one-sided conversation where you’re the only one speaking. Be sure to leave time to get the employee’s side of the story and an understanding of their feelings about the conversation. This will show them that you value their input and are being objective. And, these details can be essential in finding a solution.

Take The Emotion Out of It

When conducting a difficult conversation, be sure to stick to the facts and reference any internal processes or policy where applicable. If you realize that you are getting tense or that the employee is just not taking the news well, it may be best to gently end the conversation and pick it back up when the shock and emotions from the conversation have boiled down. If emotions are running high during an already stressful situation, a clear resolution will not be determined so be sure to moderate and modulate as needed.

Recap The Outcome and Follow Up

After a resolution has been reached, recap your commitments and agreement in an email with clear timelines so the employee has a keen understanding of next steps and actions. Difficult conversations don’t happen in a vacuum. They require follow ups and progress reports on the next steps being taken by the employee and regular check-ins to ensure they still feel these obligations are attainable.

Check-ins may uncover that the employee has been sidelined on other projects and can’t make time. This is the point where the resolution may need to be adjusted or additional managers may need to help the employee manage their schedule to make the solution a top priority.

Every employee is different and how they react to tough news is also unique. A difficult conversation can be the turning point of an employee’s career and can help you build trust and nurture the relationship with them so never shy away from having these tough calls with employees. Managing difficult conversations remotely presents its fair share of challenges but with preparation and planning, you can have a positive outcome.

Sharon Kittredje is the Vice President of People at Agora.io, a leading platform in Real-Time Engagement (RTE).