Remote Communication: How to Deal with a Difficult Teammate

Effective team communication is vital for remote workers. When you lead a remote team, you rely on each member to be responsible, productive and self-motivated to perform their tasks on time and to the best of their ability. Add to that the capability to collaborate effectively using virtual communication technology. These are vital to a team’s potential to meet its goals.

In an ideal situation, each member of your team would possess all of these traits. Unfortunately, we often don’t have the opportunity to choose our teammates. Thus, many of us know all too well the strain of dealing with an individual whose poor performance regularly derails the team, causing it to miss key deadlines or goals. In many cases, a teammate’s inability to carry out his or her assignments or tasks can be linked to poor listening skills. For instance, they often get distracted during team calls and miss important information that is discussed. Or  they’re not able to follow instructions or understand what is expected of them. Or they claim to have skills or knowledge that they don’t possess.

Sometimes it comes down to a person’s inability to function well on a virtual team. If they’re never worked remotely or within a distributed team, they not have the discipline to work on their own. They may be unclear about what their role is and how it fits into the team’s overall goals. Or they may not have the same drive or work ethics as other team members. Whatever the reason, if it gets in the way of your team’s ability to meet its goals, your employer may decide that the work simply can’t be accomplished remotely.

So how do you work past this obstacle? We recommend the following three-step approach. First, it requires the team member to actively participate in discussions about their work and assignments. This is followed by frequent check-ins to reinforce team timelines and to identify potential problems as early as possible in the project cycle.

Step 1: Communicate Project Objectives, Assignments and Outlines in Writing

Detailed information about a project’s objectives, roles, responsibilities, timelines and outlines should be shared in writing. Make sure that this information is stored in a place that every team member can access, such as a cloud-based collaboration tool, shared document system, wiki, etc.

Send an email to the team member directing their attention to the shared content. In your message, summarize the information that pertains to their task or assignment. Make sure that your message is clear, brief and easy to read. Use short paragraphs, bullet points, color and boldface to draw their attention to key information about their assignments, tasks and deadlines. For instance, highlighting deadline dates in bold, red text makes it hard to miss. Ask them to send a reply to indicate that they have received and read the message, and to make notes about any questions that they may have.

It’s difficult to check someone’s comprehension of the message in an email conversation, so follow up with a phone call.

Step 2: Discuss Details Over the Phone

Many people, millennials in particular, don’t like talking on the phone. They will text, email, message, chat… basically, they will use any method to avoid making a phone call. Nevertheless, the phone is still the best method (other than face-to-face) to check that you and your teammate are in agreement. Being able to hear the tone and inflections in your teammate’s voice will help you to identify whether there is a problem or if they’re struggling in a particular area.

The main purpose of the follow-up phone call is to make sure that your teammate has fully understood their assignment, the tasks involved, when it is due, and that they have the resources (skills, tools and knowledge) to carry it out. People often don’t like to admit that they don’t understand a process or how to use certain software applications — they assume that they can “look it up” later or possibly fake their way through it. They don’t consider the problems that can occur if they’re working in a shared application that they don’t understand how to use, or the impact to the team’s timeline while they get up to speed.

It will save a great deal of time, stress and pain if you can identity these types of skill gaps up front. This will allow you to reassign those tasks and quickly address any other details that need to be hashed out.

The following are a few pointers to keep in mind for your phone call:

  • Make sure that it’s a two-way conversation. Don’t simply recap the points made in your email message while your team member listens in silence. Ask them to paraphrase to you the project’s objectives and details, and encourage them to share their ideas and insights.
  • Let them do most of the talking. Ask open-ended questions to get them actively involved in the conversation (e.g., What are your thoughts about…? How do you see this happening?).
  • Ask how they think their tasks should be prioritized, and how they would approach certain tasks (especially the ones where you’re unsure about their abilities or they have struggled with in the past). This will help you to verify whether they have the skills necessary to perform the tasks.
  • Ask them what challenges might stand in the way of them completing their task on time, and what resources they may need from you.

Step 3: Schedule Regular Check-ins

Once you’re feeling fairly confident that your team member understands his or her role in the project and what’s expected of them, break their assignments into smaller milestones and make them accountable for daily and/or weekly deadlines.

Schedule regular check-ins to ensure that they’re progressing toward their milestones on schedule. Use a variety of communication methods, for instance, a quick daily text message to see what they’re working on that day, semi-weekly emails to see if they’re hitting their milestones, and a weekly phone call to talk through problems and to see if there are additional resources that you can provide.

If you get the sense that they’ve run into difficulties, consider a video call where you can see each other’s facial expressions. Most video conferencing applications also allow you to share screens so that you can walk them through a process or have them show you how they’re using an application. By observing their reactions during the conversation, you may be able to get a better sense of whether they’re stressed out, unconcerned, or feeling positive about their progress.

Don’t Let Team Communication Gaps Kill Performance

This approach admittedly requires more time and effort on your part. But left unchecked, communication problems will lead to poor overall team performance, low team morale, conflict among team members and missed goals. Using these steps may help you to establish a more effective way to communicate with the individual in question, and will help to identify the skill gaps that are impacting the team’s performance.

If, despite your best efforts, the person continues to be a poor performer, make sure that all of your communications are well documented and that your manager is looped in. Try to ensure that one chronically poor performer doesn’t minimize the entire team’s value and contributions from management’s point of view.