At some point, conflict in the workplace will happen. It’s unavoidable when working with different personalities. And remote work is not immune to similar conflicts, which can impact a positive and productive virtual workplace.
Since you do not have the in-person experience to address conflicts, these issues may fester longer and become a problem without a plan in place.
Below are some common causes of conflict in remote teams and the steps to help resolve them quickly.
The Causes of Conflict in Virtual Teams
Many conflicts in remote work, often stem from a misinterpretation of communication, tone, or body language. It’s easy to take something more personal when you aren’t in person or truly know the person’s intentions.
Some common causes for remote work include:
- Communication gaps.
- Misunderstandings of personalities.
- It’s easy for remote workers to ignore.
- Different types of work styles clash.
- Disagreements on projects and tasks.
- Less social interactions can clear issues up.
Lindred Greer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, shared more about these challenges back in 2014.
To sum it up:
- Remote workers are more likely to take disagreements personally when challenges to their ideas arrive via email, Slack/Teams, or other virtual communication tools.
- The remote worker can’t see the context of the facial expressions of the person who is engaging. This can cause negative feelings towards that individual.
- More back and forth since it’s all virtual and less personal, which then drives the escalation of conflicts.
How To Resolve Conflict In Virtual Teams
As a manager or company leader, you’ll want to pay close attention to discover brewing conflicts. This will allow you to spring into action sooner and find a resolution.
In order to keep company morale and productivity strong, there should always be trust and transparency among your remote team. That alone can help prevent conflict or ensure it never escalates to larger issues.
But even then, there is no guarantee you’ll never face conflict in your team. So here’s what you need to do to prevent conflict in virtual teams.
1. Look out for changes in behavior or mannerisms
As a manager, it’s a good idea to pay attention to behavior and mannerisms. If an employee or others on your team appears different, then something is most likely bothering them.
You’ll notice simple things like differences in their messages or emails, a change in tone, or becoming more unresponsive.
When engagement and style change, take that as a sign to connect with that person. Ask them questions and make it a personal conversation to get them to open up. This can help de-escalate the conflict.
2. Identify the source of conflict
Before you begin addressing those involved in the conflict, you’ll want to understand its root cause. As I mentioned in the previous section, there are a few very common triggers of conflict in virtual teams. This could be due to unclear expectations, miscommunication, workload imbalance, or any other reason.
Managers should gather information from all parties involved to understand the situation before making a plan for an agreeable resolution.
3. Encourage open communication
Remote work can sometimes make it difficult for employees to communicate effectively. And there can even be a reluctance by the employee who is frustrated to open up.
As a manager, you should encourage employees to communicate openly and honestly with each other. You can also facilitate regular virtual meetings as a team and one-on-one to help employees stay connected and be able the space to voice their concerns.
Be careful to not overdue meetings either.
It’s easy for co-workers to become burnout or experience “Zoom Fatigure” as it’s often referenced. Allow time for deep work and personal space, just don’t forget to have some regular team meetings or individual virtual coffees.
4. Promote active listening across virtual teams
Managers should encourage employees to actively listen to each other and understand each other’s perspectives.
This helps to build trust and empathy between employees, which is crucial in resolving conflict.
Managers can also facilitate structured discussions or mediations to help employees work through their differences. Often, I’ve found that listening is more important than anything else to getting conflicts resolved as soon as possible.
5. Establish clear guidelines and protocols
Although your company as a whole may have a protocol for resolving conflict, you may need to establish your own process.
Clear guidelines and protocols can help to prevent conflicts from arising in the first place. But can be a framework to rely on when conflict does begin.
As a leader, you must establish clear expectations for communication, collaboration, and workload distribution. You should also communicate these guidelines and protocols to all employees and make sure they understand them and have access to them at any time.
6. Encourage teamwork and collaboration
Encouraging teamwork and collaboration can help to build a positive and supportive work environment. You can set up a few things to help your remote team:
- Assign group projects or encourage employees to work together on common goals.
- Create a dedicated virtual workspace just for your team. For example, a Slack channel or a virtual co-working space.
- Focus some time on virtual team-building activities that allow personal bonding between everyone.
By encouraging more collaboration and celebrating wins as a team, you help to build trust, which can reduce the likelihood of conflict.
7. Address any conflicts quickly
Even if an issue appears small, address it quickly when you work remotely. As mentioned early and in some findings, those small conflicts can balloon into damaging issues much faster.
So instead of letting something escalate that can hurt the work environment, intervene as soon as possible. Move swiftly to work with the employees involved to resolve the conflict and get back to a happy and productive team.
8. Focus on solutions, not blame
When resolving conflict virtually, it is important to focus on finding solutions rather than blaming one party.
If you play the blame game, it could fuel further resentment or cause the team to not feel comfortable communicating with you in the future.
You should encourage employees to work together to find a mutually acceptable solution and help them to understand that the goal is to resolve the conflict fairly and maintain a positive work environment.
9. Use a neutral third-party mediator
In some cases, it may be beneficial to involve a neutral third-party mediator to help resolve the conflict if a resolution is becoming challenging.
This could be a human resources representative, a supervisor from another department, or an outside mediator with remote work expertise.
By going this route, you can help to provide a neutral perspective without any biases toward decisions. And it can be particularly helpful in resolving complex or deeply ingrained conflicts.
By following these above steps, you can help resolve conflict effectively and promote a positive remote work environment.
Always remember: After the conflict has been resolved, you should follow up with the employees involved to make sure that the solution has been effective and that there are no lingering issues.
And as a manager, you should also use the opportunity to reinforce positive communication and collaboration practices to prevent similar conflicts from arising in the future.