What to do When a Remote Colleague Disappoints

Dear Sophaya, 

Most of my team works remotely. We have our own projects for the most part, but we work together on some of them. One of my colleagues isn’t doing her part. I’m not her supervisor so I can’t really tell her what she is supposed to do. I also don’t know what else she is working on. I don’t want to get her in trouble, but I want to see the work get done. What should I do? 

Signed, Perplexed and frustrated 

Dear Perplexed, 

Let’s be honest, we all miss a deadline once in a while and there are lots of legitimate reasons it happens. But in remote work, missing deadlines can be particularly difficult because colleagues are out of sight and it is so easy to immediately assume the worst of someone even when it might actually be an honest mistake. Happily, this is potentially a very easy fix if you approach the problem with compassion and a real desire to find a solution.  

For the sake of this discussion, let’s call your colleague Jane. If you are the one waiting on Jane, it’s hard not to get resentful or suspicious when her work habits impact you and it’s easy to feel powerless since you aren’t Jane’s boss. However, Jane’s work habits directly affect your ability to get things done and over time Jane’s actions could negatively impact team morale so you need to take the lead here and address your concerns directly with Jane as soon as possible.  

First things first – this is not a situation that will be resolved via email, text or IM.  Please avoid written digital channels to address this problem. Using written digital channels will almost NEVER solve these types of problems. In most instances, they simply inflame things and create hard feelings and lasting disruption in trust long term. They can come off as the coward’s way to address a problem. Written communications can also be taken out of context and can even be used against you in the future so I urge you to avoid them at all costs. A much better option is to set up a video conference, a phone call or if possible, meet Jane for coffee; anything that allows for a real-time dialogue so you can speak person to person. 

Passive aggressive hints or vague, sarcastic references on your part are also a bad approach.  Not only are these behaviors unproductive and unprofessional, they don’t address the real issue and can be easily misconstrued making matters far worse in the end. They also make you look like a jerk and who wants to work with a jerk? The only way to meet this challenge is to tackle it head-on. No one can read your mind; you need to tell Jane how you feel. And even though you aren’t Jane’s supervisor, you can still, quite legitimately, reach out to talk with Jane about the impact her behavior is having on you as her colleague and teammate.  

Start by getting time on Jane’s calendar for a video chat or a phone chat. By scheduling time, you show respect, signal this is a more serious issue and you allow Jane to bring her full attention to the discussion. Once scheduled, take time before the meeting to prepare by making a list of your concerns. Keep it professional and focused on the specific behavior that is causing you a problem.  This will help you organize your thoughts and control your emotions a bit before speaking with Jane. Avoid accusations. Think of specific behavioral examples that illustrate the impact of Jane’s behavior so you can make your position clearly understood.  

For exampleThis task was due for submission on Tues of last week and it was not completed, as a result, I was unable to complete my portion on time and I don’t appreciate it.  

 This is emotional stuff. Writing it out beforehand can help you organize your thoughts and stay focused on the events and behaviors rather than making things personal.  

It sounds like you care enough about Jane not to get her in trouble. As your goal is to get the work back on track there is no reason to make this a big deal. It’s just a conversation between colleagues. Since we don’t really know why Jane missed her deadline and we really just want to solve the problem, let’s give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she might need help or is unaware she is creating problems for you.  

When you start your meeting, show your concern. “Jane, I wanted to meet with you to make sure you have everything you need to work through your portion of the project – is everything ok with you? Do you have what you need? How can I help you meet your deadline? 

Chances are Jane is already anxious because she is aware she is behind. By showing concern instead of attacking her, you send a message you are interested in helping rather than accusing. Give her a minute to respond. Listen carefully to what she has to say. If she needs help that you can provide easily, help her. If she is having more difficulty than you can accommodate or she is in real trouble, help her reach out to her supervisor or other team members that are better suited to help.  

If you can help Jane and get her back on track, problem solved. If Jane is willing to seek outside help, great, this may be all she needs to get back on track. Again, problem solved. If Jane is unwilling to seek help, remind Jane you are depending on her work so you can do yours. Keep it neutral and professional, but firm. “Please appreciate that I am unable to move forward until your portion of the work is completed. How may I help you move forward and complete your tasks?”  If Jane is still reluctant, be firm, but professional. “Jane, if you are unwilling to seek help, you leave me no choice but to inform the team of that we have a problem with a deadline that needs to be addressed.” 

Let Jane know that everyone misses a deadline sometimes and it’s no big deal as long as it doesn’t become a habit. But you need to know ahead of time so you can adjust your plan and alert others that a problem has occurred. By taking a proactive approach and reaching out to you before this happens again, Jane gives you an opportunity to help her solve the problem or raise the alarm so both of you look professional to the rest of the team. 

A very wise person once told me you have to teach people how to treat you. By speaking with Jane directly and honestly, you are signaling you are willing to address tough issues professionally and respectfully. You are also indicating you aren’t afraid to confront someone who is missing their deadlines. Once the rest of your colleagues know this is how you manage this type of situation, they will think twice before missing deadlines with you. You can also tackle this right up front and alert your colleagues that this is your process for dealing with missed deadlines as soon as you start working with them so they aren’t surprised when you do it. 

Finally, don’t forget to reach out to Jane for a check in after your conversation, do it within 24 hours, just so she knows you aren’t holding a grudge. And when she meets her deadline next time, make sure to reach out to her and tell her how much you appreciate it! 

Photo by Croissant