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Conflict Resolution for Teams Working Remotely

July 20, 2020

By: Kristen Riley

When you think about conflict, you probably picture two (or more) employees disagreeing face-to-face in a meeting or common space at the office. It’s out in the open and usually very apparent. When you think of conflict resolution, you probably picture those involved sitting with a mediator to discuss challenges, miscommunications, and work toward solutions.

This format is tried-and-true, in a traditional setting. But what about the current workplace, where employees are remote and navigating new technologies in addition to outside stressors that may be less apparent?

The current world events, the pandemic, and civil unrest are not the only catalysts to more workers going remote, either full-time or on a hybrid schedule. In fact, according to a study from October 2019, the number of people who work from home had increased by 140% since 2005.

Additionally, it can be difficult getting everyone involved in a conflict on the same phone call and emails rarely help clarify once an issue has escalated.

Is there Really More Conflict in Remote Teams?

Not necessarily. Most conflicts arise due to communication issues. This is true in the workplace and in personal relationships so it shouldn’t be a surprise. What’s important is that you understand how dynamics, and even behaviors, can shift in a remote versus physical space and how each team member communicates. Armed with this knowledge, which behavioral and personality assessments can assist with, you can head off miscommunication before it becomes a real problem.

There are three truths to virtual environments and human behavior that can help you prepare:

  1. Virtual environments empower people to be harsh
  2. Remote employees have a higher level of insecurity
  3. Remote communication is healthier for some employees

We’ll explore each of these then discuss steps to manage conflict among a remote team.

Virtual Environments Empower People to Be Harsh

If you’ve spent any time on social media or message boards, you know the internet is a hotbed for trolls. Even in professional communication employees can feel empowered to be more brazen, or short, in responses and quick to share opinions without thinking that they may have held their tongue on if they were looking the person in the eyes. If you are a woman and/or BIPOC on LinkedIn you know what we mean.

In fact, this behavior is so common it has a name: online disinhibition effect. “Online disinhibition is the lack of restraint one feels when communicating online in comparison to communicating in-person.” (Wikipedia). This effect ranges from sharing personal thoughts and fears that would otherwise remain hidden to using rude language and making threats. The distance, coupled with a lack of immediate response, can make employees more cavalier and confident in what they’re saying.

Tone is another consideration. Even if a colleague isn’t experiencing the online disinhibition or trying to be rude, wording or tone can sometimes be misconstrued by the recipients. Ever bristle at a curt email response? If you’re in the habit of sending quick emails, which we’ve all done, know that can cause co-workers to worry about or misconstrue responses.

Remote Employees Have Higher Levels of Insecurity

This may impact 100% remote workers more than those who have been sent home for health and safety reasons, however, it’s a good factor to consider when working with a team. The lack of physical presence can warp an employee’s perception of their status which can affect how they interpret the tone of digital communication.

Another study polled more than 1,100 employees to learn whether they feel connected while working remotely. This was again before the current events, but remote employees felt they couldn’t fight for their priorities, that on-site colleagues gossiped about them, and that project changes were not communicated to them properly.

Obviously, these worries will impact how an individual reads a written communication and can affect how they perform and how connected to the company culture they feel.

Remote Communication Is Healthier for Some Employees

All that said, some employees will actually thrive in remote environments. It’s not only your less vocal colleagues either. While remote teams seem like they could promote miscommunication or arguments, they can actually help the focus stay on the work.

When you’re on the phone or communicating through the email you’re less likely to detect annoyances, including eye-rolling and other cues, which allow you to focus on the work and the content of the work.

Remote employees can express their frustration without others noticing and move along in the work process without creating internal issues or causing a negative reaction.

Half the battle of reducing and resolving conflicts within remote teams is quite simply enhancing communication and employee confidence within the organization. Remote work isn’t why conflicts occur, though it can lead to increased confusion when not managed correctly.

7 Steps to Manage Conflict in Remote Teams

Conflicts and conflict resolution are part of every company. It’s very human and companies are made up of humans, so there’s no avoiding it completely. If you react quickly and take concrete steps to find solutions you, your team, and your company will be in a better position than hoping interpersonal or interdepartmental conflicts will simply resolve themselves.

Identify Gaps in Communication or Sources of Uncertainty

Start by identifying where remote communication is failing and what sources of conflict are common in your organization. These four common factors tend to lead to conflict in the remote workplace:

  • Misaligned goals, priorities, and expectations.
  • Feeling that one or more employees aren’t pulling their weight.
  • Miscommunication or complete lack of communication.
  • Not knowing one’s place on the team.

You may notice many of these sources of conflict intertwine. For example, a remote employee who does not receive the communication they need for a project leaves them uncertain about their role and what the overall goals are.

Once you have the source of the conflict, you can take steps to solve it and ideally prevent it in the future.

Train Managers to Look for Behavioral Changes

Managers play a key role in conflict escalation and resolution. Unsurprisingly, those trained to identify and solve conflicts will be better off than those who can’t identify the symptoms. Not only will management fair better with some instruction, training, and insight into their teams, so will the team dynamic, the company, and the bottom line.

It can be helpful to watch for behavioral changes, as these may indicate a miscommunication is occurring and conflict management may be necessary. A few examples of behavior changes include:

  • Prolific writers turn curt. Employees no longer using emojis or exclamation points, preferring one-word responses instead.
  • Focused changes. Employees changing how they interact with a few people instead of changing their whole tone and communication process.
  • Dropping off. Employees no longer communicating in group threads or going out of their way to exclude certain people from group discussions.

Much like you’d lean on physical cues to signal crucial changes in behavior while in-person, while these cues can’t replace casual, in-person contact they are important to recognize.

We know you’re very busy and don’t always have time to notice small behavioral changes. However, noticing and addressing these changes can prevent major problems (like project delays and employee turnover) from surfacing in the future.

Encourage Employees to Assume Positive Intent

Most miscommunication is caused by employee perception. Understanding this and developing trust within your team can enable them to assume positive intent. This is helpful when you’re busy on another project resulting in a lack of communication or a curt response. Rather than viewing this as a personal slight your employees will view it with positive intent and know it’s not personal.

As the manager, it can help to encourage and remind your remote teams to assume the intent of the sender is positive and innocent.

However, if it becomes clear that there is a problem or conflict, temporarily stop communicating. Take a step back to gain perspective. Breathe. Then consider whether involving management or another mediator is necessary to reach a solution.

Professional disagreements happen. That’s not the problem here. What we want to do first is prevent conflict if possible, then keep it from escalating to a personal fight if a disagreement does occur.

Don’t Downplay Minor Problems

It can be tempting to avoid conflict by downplaying an issue. What you’re actually doing is setting the stage for more problems and challenges with mediation.

Consider a scenario in which an employee decides their overreacting to a perceived problem or slight, and stays silent to keep the peace. Rather than addressing the issue, they’re actually normalizing the other person’s actions while delegitimizing their own feelings. Now consider what would happen should this dynamic continue. The peace-keeping employee most likely becomes increasingly disturbed and frustrated by the non-normalized behavior.

While it can be uncomfortable to address problems, you must model for and encourage your employees to address issues. Employees should have access to communication and problem-solving training while managers must learn how to mediate and thoroughly address issues.

Develop a Clear Process for Handling Conflict

You have processes for everything else, right? Well, you need one for problem-solving and conflict resolution. Just like every other scenario, this sets the stage so you’re ready when conflict arises and no one needs to panic. A sample process for remote teams dealing with conflict includes:

  1. Identify the problem: one or more remote team members explain that they’re having a disagreement and ask to schedule time with a mediator to discuss the problem(s).
  2. Hold a small summit: the disagreeing team members work with one or more mediators to address the problems and voice their concerns. All sides listen and look for ways to clarify or compromise on the issues.
  3. Follow up in writing: once an agreement is made, team members send the terms of the compromise via email for everyone to reference in the future.

Instead of bottling up problems or escalating conflicts, this process helps the entire team learn to identify problems and cleanly handle them without turning professional disagreements personal.

When your team has a conflict resolution process to follow, employees and managers can solve issues without escalating them to the CEO.

Create Goal-Focused Conflict Plans

This one may be a surprise to you if you’re new to leading a team. Many employees believe their managers expect all workers to like each other and get along. While this utopian scenario sounds nice, it’s not likely, especially the larger your organization grows. Personality clashes occur. Therefore, creating conflict resolution strategies that are goal-oriented can go further and last longer than expecting employees to become friendly.

It helps if you clarify what the end goal of conflict resolution means to the business up front, rather than forcing employees to pretend they get along.

Set Up Team-Building and Engagement Opportunities

You probably know that team-building is a great way to build communication and foster a group mentality in your organization. If you’re new to managing a remote workforce you may be at a loss how this translates into a virtual world. One way to encourage team-building is to ensure your remote employees are involved in weekly updates, cross-department meetings, regular check-ins, and maybe even a water-cooler talk time to let people meet and chat about things other than work if they have a moment in their day.

One easy way to encourage engagement is during your weekly updates. Even if it takes less than 15 minutes, open with an ice breaker question (“what are you reading/watching/listening to this week?”) and give your remote team space to ask questions and learn after the updates. It’s easy to overlook, but these calls are essential for making your remote employees feel like they’re part of the team.

How Omnia Can Help

Omnia offers an easy-to-implement behavioral assessment so you can get started right away. Results are instant, digestible, and actionable. If you want even more insight, our team can provide you with an in-depth analysis of your assessment data. Remember: we’re here to help you improve your hiring and interview process so that your company continues to thrive!

Kristen Riley

Marketing Program Manager for The Omnia Group. Kristen manages the online presence, inbound marketing strategy, and thrives at the intersection of analysis and creativity. She has 15 years’ experience in traditional and digital marketing, the perfect career for a life-long learner. Kristen is excited to educate professionals on how Omnia can help create a more cohesive workplace. For more information, email info@omniagroup.com or call 800.525.7117

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