Why Conflict is Different in a Remote Work Environment – And How to Handle It
Managing conflict is hard enough when everyone is together in person. But, as we all know, interpersonal issues can become exacerbated when people aren’t physically together, and issues are permitted to bubble and grow below the surface. In this article, we share our best tips and strategies for managing conflict and promoting team unity in a remote or hybrid work environment.
“I can’t believe she said that!”
“He’s the worst.”
“What were they thinking???”
I’m sure we can all think of times during in-person meetings when these thoughts have come into our heads. But, beyond a furtive glance to a favourite colleague, or maybe an eye roll that we thought was discreet, these thoughts pretty much stayed in our heads, and we generally went on with our days without sharing them because there just wasn’t opportunity to vent privately until the moment had passed.
But, with remote work, things have changed.
When people are working virtually, they can communicate in ways that are more private and more immediate than in the traditional, in-person workplace.
Text messages, DMs, private Zoom conversations that cannot be overheard by the boss. All of these mechanisms allow team members to share their thoughts – unseen by management and in real time – more than ever before.
What this means is that remote work brings with it a different type of conflict, and one that is intrinsically harder to manage. The virtual workplace can allow problems to bubble and grow, without management ever knowing that something is wrong.
But, there are some things that leaders and people managers can do to regain control of the dialogue and effectively manage conflict to build a respectful and open virtual culture.
Keep your ear to the ground
The first step to managing virtual conflict is to know that it’s happening. This means scheduling regular one-on-ones with members of your team across all levels and fostering open dialogue with team members. How do you get your people to open up? Start by opening up yourself. People are more likely to share honestly with you when they feel that you are being honest with them. Next, ask sincere, open-ended questions, and follow up with more questions based on the responses you get. It may take a few conversations, but what you learn from your team members will be invaluable to fostering the remote working culture that will help your team succeed.
Don’t wait to address issues
One of the most notable features of the virtual world is speed. The internet helps us to shop faster, entertain ourselves faster…and develop conflict faster. This means that, as a leader, you have to intervene faster. A timely intervention is better than a perfect intervention.
One-on-one, screen-on calls are your friend
As soon as you get people in a big group on a video call, there’s a higher likelihood that some of your team members are tuning out or having sub-conversations. Stick to one-on-one or small group conversations and insist that screens be turned on for sensitive conversations around conflict so that you can monitor facial expression and body language as much as possible.
Create opportunities for positive connection and collaboration
When people feel a sense of relatedness and connection to their colleagues, there is less likely to be conflict in the first place. Harness virtual tools like Zoom and Slack to create space for regular, productive collaboration between colleagues. Don’t be afraid to slide in some forced fun – a game of Kahoot that ends with everyone laughing together can make a big difference to the morale of your team. When people feel like a united team, they are less likely to lose their patience with one another and engage in negative back-talk, even online.
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