There’s no such thing as a conflict-free workplace. Some tension is a normal part of bringing together a group of very different people and asking them to spend 40+ hours a week collaborating to meet common goals. Conflict isn’t even necessarily a bad thing! Sometimes it’s the catalyst that leads to new ideas and positive growth.
But conflict can also cause rifts that interfere with the company’s mission and put metaphorical dents in the company culture. Disagreements among coworkers, or between employees and their managers, can turn into fights that cause resentment to grow among team members. In a distributed workforce, those resentments can quietly fester until what started as a minor disagreement becomes a much bigger problem. Being proactive about conflict management is a key part of successfully managing remote teams.
Potential Sources of Conflict
There are definitely some extra challenges around managing conflicts within remote teams. For one, even really diligent managers can’t see everything that’s happening between coworkers. By the time a conflict rises to the level of management involvement, it could have been brewing for weeks. So defusing tension before it grows is really important in a distributed workforce. Some of the key conflict sources for remote teams include:
- Miscommunications and misunderstandings. A lot of nuance can be lost when teams communicate virtually. It’s much harder to analyze a coworker’s tone via email or over a social network than it is in person, and not everyone is comfortable expressing themselves in writing. A message that the sender intends to be short and factual can be interpreted as terse or snarky by the recipient. Plus, people who are inundated with emails and texts all day may overlook important messages, and leave their coworkers hanging as a result.
- Scheduling and technology challenges. Remote workers may schedule their days differently than they would when working in an office, so getting everyone on the same page around meeting scheduling can be tough—especially if you’re dealing with workers in different time zones. Then there are technology issues, like faulty WiFi signals and coworkers who can’t seem to work Zoom, that make virtual meetings longer than necessary and irritate everyone.
- Uneven contributions. In a traditional office, it’s hard to slack off without people noticing. In a distributed workforce, it may be easier. An employee who feels like they’re making big sacrifices to be prepared and productive each day could become frustrated if they don’t think coworkers are putting in the same effort. Of course, the frustrated employee has no idea what their coworkers are really doing—but these little resentments can flourish within remote teams.
- Employee stress. Prior to the coronavirus crisis, it was reasonable for an employer to expect employees to keep challenges in their personal lives from interfering with work. But now, many employees are having to balance full-time work with full-time childcare, worrying about money and job security, struggling with isolation from loved ones and trying to protect themselves from the virus. Everyone is under an unreasonable amount of stress, and tensions may be high on some days.
Responding to Conflict Among Remote Workers
Some conflict are inevitable within a distributed workforce. There are a few strategies that may help you quickly defuse these flare-ups and prevent them from happening again.
- Acknowledge conflicting opinions quickly. If two coworkers get into a dispute on a video call, and the person running the call elects to just change the subject, both those workers are likely to go off on their own and stew about how the other person is wrong. It can be awkward in the moment, but addressing conflicts when they happen is the productive solution in the long run. It could be as simple as saying something like, “I hear that there’s some disagreement here; Sam and Chris, let’s put a pin in this until everyone else is off the call,” then following up later.
- Establish policies for handling conflict. From an employee’s perspective, is there an easy way to ask for help regarding conflicts or tension? Say the employee feels like their supervisor has been withholding work tasks because of a personal grudge—would the employee know who to bring that issue to? Does the employee handbook address conflict resolution? Does HR get involved? Make sure there are systems in place that specifically address conflicts among remote workers.
- Take the temperature of the group. In a physical workspace, company leadership can see fractures form between coworkers and course-correct before they become explosive. Transitioning to remote working removes that transparency, so employee feedback becomes a really important source of data. It could be useful to schedule one-on-one biweekly or monthly video checkins with everyone, giving all team members a private forum to raise any issues they’re having around workplace conflict. Additionally, make sure there’s a channel through which employees can give routine feedback about any challenges they’re having with your company’s remote work setup.
- Encourage more proactive communication. Avoiding miscommunications is a huge part of conflict management for remote teams. Being organized and consistent around communication is key. For example, if new ideas are discussed or action items assigned in a Zoom call, does the call leader summarize those points in an email so everyone has a record to reference? Have you limited how many company-wide emails go out so that no one is inundated with messages all day? Note any miscommunications that happen repeatedly, like meeting invites that are routinely missed, to figure out how to prevent them in the future.
Especially for companies that had to pivot quickly to remote work, there’s a steep learning curve for creating a strong distributed workforce culture. How conflict is managed is a big determining factor in a company’s culture. Remote employees want to know that their concerns are being heard, and management wants to resolve issues with minimal disruption to productivity. Being proactive about conflict management is a win-win.
Learn more and register for our upcoming webinar, Managing Conflict in the Middle of a Pandemic, on Tuesday, July 28 at 12:00 PM EST. This session will discuss the conflict resolution skills you need to work through the unique challenges of today’s “new normal”.