Victoria Sambursky

Remote teams span across departments, continents, and even time zones, so how do you handle conflict management between employees in a vast virtual workplace?

To tackle this issue, we take a look at the most popular issues managers face in the telework space. We also list top conflict management tips to effectively deal with these problems and prevent new ones from emerging.

Insecurity and Office Politics

One eye-opening study published in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) found that remote workers are more likely to report feeling insecure, mistreated and left out. They worry that coworkers say bad things behind their backs, make changes to projects without any warning, or rally against them.

The same HBR study also reported that virtual workplace politics are more pervasive and challenging, and when conflicts arise, employees have a harder time resolving them. The remote teams revealed that company problems tended to drag on from a few days to several weeks. These negative impacts affected overall productivity, deadlines, morale, stress, budgets, and retention.

Online Disinhibition Effect or “Trolling”

The online disinhibition effect can be seen everywhere. It’s when people feel empowered to make brazen statements online without thinking about possible repercussions – or “trolling.” In business, this effect takes place when employees engage in unproductive, mean-spirited arguments online that don’t reflect their real character in person. The distance, coupled with slower response time, can make remote employees feel more confident in what they’re saying.

A recent Fast Company article revealed that this kind of online miscommunication usually happens because when someone can’t see a person’s facial expressions, eye contact, tone, or posture, communication can easily be misinterpreted. This can lead to employees sending out quick responses without stopping to think about the consequences. For example, on communication platforms like Slack, all general communication a company has had – productive, funny, bad, and outright embarrassing, is there for anyone to see – especially new employees.

Tips for Conflict Management in Virtual Teams

Outline Communication Strategies

Setting up effective communication channels is essential to prevent conflict. However, this leads to additional questions such as – When do you write emails? When is it appropriate to chat? and When do you video conference? These questions need to be addressed in a remote environment to establish clear protocols in how teams communicate both formally and informally.

Prevent Gaps

Analyze your teams’ communication pain points and take the necessary steps to avoid them in a remote setting. Common situations to watch out for can include lack of communication between workers, misaligned goals or priorities, and feeling a team member isn’t pulling his or her weight. Quick steps managers can take to help prevent these gaps include:

  • Creating a safe space for employees to be vulnerable and open with management about their frustrations.
  • Conduct regular live meetings and establish messaging platforms (i.e., Slack) that drive better communication.
  • Inquire about workload and progress without micromanaging.
  • Do not downplay minor incidents. Thoroughly address all issues – big or small.

Develop Clear Processes for Conflict Management

Instilling a formal process on how remote work conflicts need to be addressed will create a clear path to resolution. Some ideas to include in this process can be:

  • Letting teams know that the matter will be addressed individually to get at the root of the issue before bringing the parties together to solve it.
  • Use video conferencing to bring the parties together to clarify and compromise on the problems.
  • Once the issues are resolved and agreements are made, team members will send the terms of the compromise by email for everyone to reference going forward.

Create Secure Teams

Managers who are direct with their workplace expectations have more secure teams. Using online management platforms like Trello can help create clear project goals and streamline workflows. With this kind of explicit and organized communication, employees never feel left in the dark about roles, tasks, projects, or deadlines.

Squash Trolling

Create a strict policy for trolling or online bullying and email this policy to all remote employees for reference. First, consult HR and discuss employee rights to see what can be done both legally and ethically. Then give remote employees specific examples of communication styles that are considered inappropriate and grounds for disciplinary action.

Develop Personal Relationships

Managers need to go the extra mile when it comes to bonding with remote employees. Conducting daily check-ins (or whatever works best) to ask about their families, personal life, and other light topics helps with building employee trust and communication. Designate a meeting time on Skype, Zoom, or other video conferencing platform for fun conversations so that the teams can strengthen communication skills and create personal connections.

Be Accessible

Create a virtual “open door” policy with your team. This may seem obvious, but when dealing with remote environments, some employees may not know what to expect as far as being able to reach out when conflicts happen, especially those living in different time zones. Being accessible, even at odd hours, is essential in establishing bonds with your team and creating an atmosphere of trust.

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