When managers think about conflict resolution, they picture two employees facing each other and talking through their problems with a mediator. This format is great in the traditional workforce, but what about in the modern workplace, where remote employees span across departments, continents and time zones?
In fact, getting everyone on the phone at the same time can be just as challenging as mediating the actual conflict. Furthermore, digital communication including email and even conference calls can escalate issues unexpectedly.
Here are a few ways you can remotely manage conflict in your organization and take steps to prevent minor disagreements from becoming major problems.
Is there Really More Conflict in Remote Teams?
Before they can work to resolve conflicts on remote teams, managers need to understand that conflict often arises because of communication problems. There are a few ways in which people change their behavior online that can lead to confusion, frustration, or miscommunication.
Virtual Environments Empower People to Be Harsh
Everyone knows the internet is a hotbed for trolls, and even in professional communication, employees can feel empowered to make brazen statements online without thinking about possible repercussions.
“People tend to abandon their social inhibitions and devalue their moral obligations in cyberspace,” Elena Chis, creative director at PixelUp Inc., writes. “Any behavior is characterized by an apparent reduction in concerns for self-presentation, and the judgment of others, which causes people to adopt behaviors that they normally would not exhibit offline.”
This is known as the ‘online disinhibition effect,’ and 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.
Even if an employee isn’t experiencing the online disinhibition or trying to be rude, their wording or tone might be misconstrued by the recipients. Those who send quick emails or curt answers, for example, can cause co-workers to worry about or misconstrue those responses.
“One of the biggest pitfalls of written communication is its susceptibility to being misinterpreted or misunderstood,” the team at Crossover explains. “Without visual and verbal cues like facial expression, body language, intonation, and other signals we use to determine meaning, messages can sometimes come across as terse, angry, or rude when they weren’t meant to be.”
Remote Employees Have Higher Levels of Insecurity
Furthermore, perception of an employee’s status within the company can affect how they interpret the tone of digital communication.
Social scientists Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield polled more than 1,100 employees to learn whether they feel connected while working remotely. Across the board, remote employees agreed that, far more than those on-site, remote colleagues:
don’t fight for their priorities,
say bad things behind their backs, and
make project changes without warning them.
While gossip and project changes certainly occur on-site, remote employees feel like these conflicts affect them more because they’re are physically not in the office.
Remote Communication Is Healthier for Some Employees
It may seem like remote teams are hotbeds for miscommunication and arguments, but there are actually significant benefits to communicating on the phone or through written messages.
“You’re less likely to detect annoyance, eye rolling, and all the other cues that go along with conflict,” Professor Pamela Hinds says. “The focus tends to be much more 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 often simply enhancing communication and employee confidence within the organization. Remote work doesn’t lead to an increase in conflicts per se, but can lead to increased confusion when not managed correctly.
7 Steps to Manage Conflict in Remote Teams
Every company has different conflicts and remote work challenges. Managers who react quickly and take concrete steps to find solutions will be in a better position than those who hope interpersonal or interdepartmental conflicts simply resolve themselves.
Identify Gaps in Communication or Sources of Uncertainty
Your company needs to identify where remote communication is failing and what sources of conflict are common in your organization. By studying the conflict on your team, you can take the necessary steps to solve it.
Virtual team management expert Yael Zofi lists four common factors that lead to conflict in the remote workplace. These are:
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.
Many of these sources of conflict intertwine. A remote worker might not receive the communication they need, which 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. Those who are trained to identify and solve conflicts will be better off than those who can’t identify the symptoms.
Dave Nevogt, co-founder of Hubstaff, encourages managers to watch the communication of their remote employees and make note of any changes. A few examples of behavior changes include:
Employees no longer using emojis or exclamation points, preferring one word responses instead.
Employees changing how they interact with a few people instead of changing their whole tone and communication process.
Employees no longer communicating in group threads or going out of their way to exclude certain people from group discussions.
Senior executive coach Suzan Bond agrees that it’s crucial for managers to take note of changes in employee communication. “In a traditional office environment, it’s easy to rely on physical cues to sense when a team member is getting ready to quit,” she writes. “But when you lose that casual, in-person contact you can miss important clues.”
Both Nevogt and Bond admit that managers are busy and don’t always have time to notice small changes in behavior. However, noticing and addressing these changes can prevent major problems (like project delays) from surfacing in the future.
Encourage Employees to Assume Positive Intent
Most of these communication conflicts are caused by employee perception. A lack of communication or curt response might come off as a personal slight that escalates to a problem.
If you assume that every message is vaguely threatening or a certain phrase is a slight toward you, then you’re likely to start more conflict that you realize. Lisette Sutherland, author of Stories of Remote Teams Doing Great Things, encourages employees working on remote teams to assume the intent of the sender is positive and innocent.
And if it becomes clear that there is a conflict or problem, stop communicating. Human resources consultant and mediator Ebohr Figueroa encourages people to resist the urge to respond just as quickly and aggressively as their co-workers. Instead, he encourages everyone to take a step back to gain perspective or consider involving management to mediate the problem.
As well as possibly preventing conflict from starting in the first place, the approach can help keep professional disagreements from escalating into personal fights.
Don’t Downplay Minor Problems
Employees might think they’re taking a responsible stance by downplaying an issue, but they’re actually setting the stage for more problems and challenges with mediation.
Kimberly Bringas, who works in human resources at the live chat software company Olark, lists a few scenarios where conflict solution tactics can make the situation worse.
For example, employees might think they’re overreacting to a perceived problem or slight, and stay quiet to keep the peace. However, this approach can actually downplay and normalize the other person’s actions while delegitimizing their own feelings. The behavior continues and increasingly disturbs an already frustrated employee.
Managers and team members alike need to learn how to address problems. 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
When you have a process for solving problems, you don’t have to panic when they arise. Ariel Meadow Stallings, founder of the digital publishing company Offbeat Empire, shares how her remote team deals with conflict:
Identify the problem: one or more remote team members explain that they’re having a disagreement and ask to schedule time to discuss the problems further.
Hold a small summit: the disagreeing team members work with one or more mediators to address their problems and voice their concerns. All sides listen and look for ways to clarify or compromise on the issues.
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 Offbeat team learn to identify problems and cleanly handle them without turning professional disagreements personal.
“The best way for dealing with these issues is not to stop them from happening,” Cam Garrant, marketing manager at Repsly, writes. “[Conflicts] are an almost certain thing within any working environment -- the key is to de-escalate the passions of those involved before a situation gets heated.”
When your team has a conflict-resolution process to follow, employees and managers can solve issues without escalating them to the CEO level.
Create Goal-Focused Conflict Plans
One problem with conflict resolution is that employees think management wants all workers to like each other and get along. Even the best conflict-resolution tactics can’t solve personality clashes. Some people just don’t like each other.
Leadership expert Kevin Eikenberry explains that managers need to clarify what the end goal of conflict resolution means to the business instead of forcing employees to pretend they get along.
“If they end up liking each other that is a nice benefit, but make it clear that isn’t your goal,” he says. “You will improve the likelihood that people will be open to working on the conflict when they understand what your goal really is.”
Set Up Team-Building and Engagement Opportunities
Involving remote employees is a great way to build communication and foster a group mentality in your organization. In an article for Forbes, Christine Comaford, executive coach who leverages neuroscience to create leadership, emphasizes the importance of involving employees in regular meetings, updates and information-based calls.
“When we communicate often we include people — and we foster a sense of us all belonging together,” she writes. “We want to engage everyone during meetings.”
Even if the weekly updates take less than 15 minutes, giving your remote team space to ask questions and learn can make them feel included. You might not realize it, but these calls are essential for making your remote employees feel like they’re part of the team.
“In physical work environments, team members incidentally or purposefully form bonds,” Darleen DeRosa, managing partner at OnPoint Consulting, writes. “Virtual leaders must intentionally create opportunities for people to interact.This, in turn, nurtures the development of vital interpersonal relationships to build trust and social capital.”
Simply having employees participate on a call can help them address concerns or give your in-house employees ideas for remote collaboration.