Feedback in remote teams: The gift that keeps on giving

We all know that team dynamics aren’t set in stone. There are good days and then there are ‘my-team-is-driving-me-mad’ days.

Letting teammates know how their behaviour is supporting or hindering each other’s work may seem less daunting to share if you’re working in the same location because you get to mention this in-person. But remote teams don’t have that luxury.

As a remotee, you have two options: you can send feedback in a message or give it during a video call. From my personal experience, I think there’s still a lot of room for improvement for giving feedback in both these ways.

Ever since I became location-independent two years ago, I’ve been intent on setting up a process that would allow my remote team to give each other open and transparent feedback. Not individually, but as a group.

Building trust and support

Most experiences with feedback in a work environment are annual performance reviews. These are usually top-down, one-sided conversations that rarely leave a huge impact on you once you leave the meeting room. I really learnt how effective feedback can be outside of work, when I quit my job as a graphic designer to study at Hyper Island.

Barely a week into the Masters programme, all students had to give each other feedback. We were told to stand in two long lines facing each other and we were given 30 seconds to say something we appreciated about the person facing us. After exchanging some superficial compliments with our partner, we had to move down the line and repeat the process. It was a brief exercise with 23 people simultaneously chatting and sliding to the side in an awkward line dance — an innocent introduction to “feedback for dummies”, minus the music.

After this inaugural choreography, we were split into teams and started working on client briefs. Working in a new group came with a lot of challenges, especially while you’re discovering each other’s personalities and distinct ways of collaborating.

A couple of weeks into our first module, we learnt about the Johari Window, a concept used in psychology to improve relationships in groups. The idea is simple: in order to build trust within a team, every individual is encouraged to open up and regularly share their personal experiences and feelings. In turn, this helps others understand them better and provide the support they need to work more effectively. Ideally, you want to expand your “Arena” into the “Unknown” area as much as possible.

The many hidden facets of humans

Fundamentals of feedback

At Hyper Island, we were told three main things about feedback:

1. Feedback is a gift 🎁

Think about the last time you received a gift.

If it was another handknitted Christmas jumper from your grandmother, you might have said “Thank you!” even though you knew you’d wear it zero times in this lifetime. If you received a pair of earrings from your friends (even though they should have known your ears aren’t pierced… this actually happened to me), you might have questioned your friendship but managed a confused “Thank you?”. And if your boyfriend gave you a watch on your 18th birthday just after you broke up (this happened to me too, weirdly on the same day as the earrings), you might not want to keep the watch but still said “Thank you…” (then proceed to tell him to return the watch or give it to his mother).

Notice a pattern? Bingo!

It’s the “thank yous” (and also the fact that I had a crappy 18th birthday).

It’s normal to thank people for their gifts, regardless of what they’re giving us. We can always decide later whether we want to keep the gift, give it away or chuck it in the bin. So remember to always thank the person who gave us feedback before choosing what to do with it afterwards.

2. Knowing how to receive feedback is just as important as giving it 🙏

When someone gives us feedback on our behaviour, we can:

  • Maintain the same behaviour (ignore the feedback)
  • Reinforce the behaviour (deny or justify your behaviour)
  • Change the behaviour (attempt to understand the feedback)

Many people’s initial reaction towards feedback is to go into defense mode because we feel personally attacked. By trying to empathise with the person who feels uncomfortable with our actions though, we can gradually improve our relationships with others and with ourselves. The Feedback Staircase below shows how taking steps towards more positive reactions can lead to a stronger personal development.

Stepping all the way up to feedback enlightenment

3. When giving feedback, focus on how you felt about someone else’s actions 🙋

The most important thing is to focus on the impact of someone else’s actions, not the person. It’s important to state the action and say how that action made you feel. For example, say you brought doughnuts for your team one day but someone had more than their fair share. Instead of saying, “You’re selfish because you ate too many doughnuts and didn’t leave any for the rest of the team” it would be better to say, “When you ate all those doughnuts, I felt frustrated because I bought those doughnuts for everyone to enjoy.”

This way of focusing on your feelings is a common technique used in conflict resolution. By doing so, you avoid making accusations that would make the other person feel less open to dialogue and prevent them from going on the defensive. Getting people to feel comfortable to communicate about how they feel is crucial, so anything that eases dialogue should be prioritised. Especially if it’s about doughnuts :)

Feedback helps unblock feelings

At Hyper Island we experimented with different forms of giving feedback. The most commonly used models were the “I appreciate” and “Start, Stop, Continue” formats. Usually we would give feedback to each other after a team reflection, but we would occasionally run ad-hoc feedback sessions in the middle of a project if we felt the need for it.

Was it emotionally draining? You bet. But at the same time, it was also incredibly meaningful and moving. As one of our programme managers once said,

“At the end of the day, we’re all people — and people have feelings.”

Yet today’s outcome-driven work environments seem to have forgotten that we are people with private lives and personal baggage that influence who we are and how we behave with others.

Being capable of opening up and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable with the people we spend most of our time with is probably one of the best things we can possibly do for ourselves — and it just happens to make teamwork more effective too.

Hanno’s first dance with feedback

Having experienced the benefits of giving feedback in a group, I knew I had to introduce my team to the idea of feedback eventually. I was the newest Hanno shipmate and I was eager to bring many of the methodologies I had learnt in my course. So during one of our team retreats, we gradually started using daily check-ins to communicate how we were feeling each day and by the end of the trip we had our first group feedback session on a sunny balcony in Dubrovnik (with views of famous GOT landmarks, yes).

Better than boy scout badges: feedback sticky notes

I have to admit, I was really proud of this first step but I had no idea how we were going to continue giving each other feedback virtually once we all returned home. As I predicted, we didn’t continue. In fact, for a year and a half, nothing happened. We were all so caught up in client projects that most of us forgot about it, except I knew I had to bring it back. More so when I found myself in awkward situations and wanted to give someone feedback but didn’t know how to because we hadn’t set up a feedback process.

All that changed when I attended the Out of Office webinar for remote workers. I was blown away by Dino Anderson’s talk on ‘Values of a humane remotee culture: empathy, trust and inclusiveness’ which spoke straight to my emotional-intelligence-obsessed heart. Everything he was saying about bringing your whole self to work and how to build a remote team culture made a lot of sense and I knew there was so much more I could learn from him.

It didn’t take long for me to reach out to Dino and tell him not only how inspiring his talk was (I cannot recommend it enough, so do watch it), but also get his advice on how to setup a remote feedback session with my team.

Dino giving me feedback on my feedback. Much meta.

Giving group feedback, remotely — it’s a lot less scary than it sounds

Almost two years after joining Hanno, I was finally ready to adapt my feedback experience to my team’s online environment. We used a combination of Zoom, our favourite video conference call software, and MURAL, our go-to online collaboration tool which I also use a lot when I facilitate online workshops.

First off, I created a template on MURAL for our team to run a feedback session:

The feedback template I hacked together

Initially, the plan was to work through the template in 1 hour with the whole team in Zoom. I soon realised that I massively underestimated the time it would take to refresh my team’s memory on how to give feedback, so we ended up splitting the feedback session into two 2-hour sessions.

Part 1: Feedback ≠ Evaluation

The first session focused on the exercises on the top row (view it on MURAL). Thanks to Dino’s advice, I really understood the importance of starting out by explaining the purpose of feedback. This may seem obvious, but when you’re introducing feedback to your team for the first time, it’s essential that everyone can see the value of doing it for the overall well-being of the team.

It’s also critical for them to understand the distinction between constructive feedback and a performance evaluation — I was focusing on the former and I wanted to make sure I emphasised that this wasn’t about evaluating how people performed on projects, but rather about how people’s behaviours supported or blocked our team. I also brought up openness and transparency, two core values in Hanno’s culture.

In order for everyone to feel like they could take ownership of the feedback process, I also realised it was better if we would create our own guidelines for effective feedback based on their previous experiences and beliefs. Here’s what our team came up with:

  • Give feedback face-to-face (in a video call)
  • Use simple language
  • Describe the behaviour, not the person
  • Be specific, don’t generalise
  • Provide a solution
  • Focus on the positives that lead to improvement
  • Focus on things that the person can actually change
  • Offer mentoring
  • Have an empathic dialogue
  • Strive for balance
  • Remember that people need time to change

These guidelines give our team a framework on how to give feedback effectively and can be rewritten in future as we continue to improve our process. The rest of the session was spent discussing the Feedback Staircase and sharing some tips on how to receive feedback.

Part 2: Sharing is caring

In the second session, we shared feedback with each other as a group. This was by far the part I struggled with the most when coming up with the process. I was very aware that the experience of doing this online probably wouldn’t be as rich as doing it in person, but I still gave it a shot. So here’s what we did…

On the MURAL, I added 3 feedback models that the team could choose from. For our first session, we went for the “I appreciate” model.

A week before our feedback session, I asked each teammate to write down feedback for every person on the team in a private Google Doc using this model. One week may seem like a lot of time, but it turns out that most people really needed that time to think about what they wanted to say to others.

On the day of the session, the team joined me on Zoom and MURAL. I explained we would each take turns giving feedback. I went first and picked one person to give feedback to. I read it out first and once I finished, I added it on as a sticky note in MURAL. The person who received the feedback thanked me and proceeded to pick someone they wanted to give feedback to, and so on…

There were 8 of us on the call and the entire process lasted about 2 hours but it was well worth our time.

The verdict? It’s a keeper

After an intense year jam-packed with client projects, I was starting to sense that our culture was suffering. Some of us were feeling isolated, especially those who were working solo on internal projects and had less opportunities to interact with other teammates regularly.

I feel like that has changed ever since we did our first remote feedback session at the beginning of this year — there’s a more vibrant atmosphere online, the conversations in Slack are livelier and everyone is more willing to reach out to others for spontaneous calls to catch up and find out what others are working on.

Sharing feedback openly as a team created a special bond between us even if we had done the entire process online. Being open and allowing ourselves to be more vulnerable brought us much closer because we connected on a more personal level. I’m sure the fact that we knew each other already and had met on team retreats also helped, but telling each other how we felt about each other strengthened our relationship even further.

It’s definitely re-energised the team and although there are still a couple of things we can improve in the process, we’re aiming to make feedback sessions a regular part of our remote culture.


Originally published at logbook.hanno.co on March 16, 2017.