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Managing Conflict When You Work Remotely

Workplace conflicts will always exist. Some disagreements can even be useful, helping ideas evolve by exposing them to different opinions and points of view. But too much conflict, or the wrong kind of it, can cause stress or create a toxic working environment.

Resolving—and preventing—conflict takes a special set of skills, especially when you’re working remotely. The good news is that you can learn how to manage virtual disputes.

Remote work conflict is common

If you’re hoping that remote work will mean an end to conflicts with your coworkers, you may be disappointed. A recent survey reported that 80% of remote professionals had to deal with workplace conflict, which is only slightly lower than the 85% typical in non-remote workplaces.

On-the-job conflicts happen when people or groups disagree about how to reach an outcome, or whether an outcome is the right one to pursue. Conflicts can be based on:

  • Task responsibilities. Teamwork can break down if people feel their colleagues aren’t pulling their weight. A clear outline of responsibilities can prevent turmoil.
  • Work styles. People approach tasks and goals in different ways. For example, those who appreciate schedules and organization may clash with those who prefer to work under the pressure of a deadline. Open communication will help co-workers understand what their colleagues need or expect.
  • Leadership styles. If a worker can’t relate to a colleague’s hands-on or hands-off leadership style, for example, it can result in disagreements. An understanding of different leadership styles within the team will allow everyone to feel they are on the same page.
  • Ideas. Opinions about approaches, products, or designs may vary, especially with a diverse workforce. Good leaders can harness these differences to allow for new or more creative outcomes.
  • Personalities. Different attitudes and backgrounds can cause conflicts, bullying, and unfairness. Creating a culture of respect and inclusion is key to resolving these issues.

While these conflicts can erupt just as easily in person as online, certain issues can make remote work more prone to conflict. They include:

  • A lack of incidental (but important) information. As a remote worker, you can’t just pop into your colleague’s office to clarify a report or request. Without those casual conversations at the water cooler, you will have less of a sense of how you, your project, or even the broader organization are doing. When a team leader doesn’t immediately respond to a request, you might feel ignored, but perhaps she is dealing with personal matters that you do not know about.
  • Uncertainty. A lack of information can lead to anxiety. Is your company doing well? Is your job secure? Are team members talking about you behind your back?
  • Communication challenges. If you can’t physically see your co-workers as you share information, you can miss cues like body language or tone of voice. What may be a brief email can come across as curt or even rude. During an online presentation or discussion, it’s also harder to read the room and make sure everyone understands and agrees with what’s being said.
  • Social isolation. You may find remote work lonely, especially if you didn’t choose to work offsite. This can cause you to become depressed and less interested in your work. Negative feedback may cause you to take offence quickly, leading to conflict.
  • Lower online inhibitions. Even in professional settings, you are more likely to write something in an email or comment section that you would never say face-to-face.

Understanding that you, your colleagues, and your supervisors may all be experiencing these types of feelings as you work remotely will help you prevent conflict.

Preventing conflict

Preventing conflict isn’t the same as avoiding conflict. Good remote workers know that they need to stay on top of any disagreements as they arise and encourage alternate viewpoints to speak up.

Everyone on the team is less likely to feel upset or ignored if they know they are being heard and understand what they need to do. Within a remote work setting, it is important to:

Communicate clearly and often

A workplace culture that allows everyone to speak openly, ask questions, and bring issues to the table as they occur builds trust and confidence. Work together to model this culture.

Within a remote work environment, it is usually better to over-communicate than under-communicate. To help people feel like they’re in the loop, request and circulate regular updates, recognize good work, and offer support when you see an issue.

Reach out often and keep your virtual door open by encouraging questions and feedback. Video conferences can help with complex discussions, allowing participants to pick up on non-verbal cues. Asking questions also promotes clarity and prevents larger issues down the road.

Hold regular online meetings and don’t limit them to business only. Asking questions about each other’s family or personal interests will help you and your team members understand and respect each other.

Choose one-on-one meetings when you sense an issue is developing so the other person can feel safe discussing it. By jumping on a small issue and helping resolve it, you can prevent a larger issue from developing.

Use structured feedback tools such as regular questionnaires and anonymous surveys so team members can share their opinions about existing processes and challenges.

In meetings or through feedback, look for knowledge or understanding gaps. These gaps can lead to uncertainty and, eventually, to conflict.

Online discussion boards allow you to discuss issues as they happen and ask for advice when it’s needed. Team members may be more candid online than in person, especially if comments can be submitted anonymously. When issues arise, you may need to appoint someone to ensure that everyone has given feedback and that the issue is resolved. The online board can also act as the project vault, storing decisions and their reasons in one place.

Set up a shared online workspace where team members can access discussion boards, shared files, and project updates. By regularly adding important information to this space, you’ll encourage team members to check in regularly.

Set expectations as a team

Make sure you and your colleagues clearly understand your projects, tasks, and goals to prevent uncertainty and future conflict. Ask for input, allow for feedback, and document the decisions where each member can find them. Track productivity and circulate the results to other team members.

Share lessons learned from past projects and document those from the current one. This includes the positive and negative experiences. Regularly updating the lessons learned allows projects to move forward more smoothly.

Celebrate each other’s success. Upon completion of a project, consider inviting everyone to buy lunch from their favourite local spot and arrange to eat together online.

Say thank you and be grateful for each other. If someone working remotely has gone out of their way to be kind or helpful to you, consider how to go beyond a virtual thanks. For example, can you send them flowers, a local gift card, or a favourite snack?

Resolving conflict

Even in healthy remote teams, disputes can arise among workers who feel isolated and detached. The following suggestions will help you resolve these issues.

Listen actively and acknowledge the conflict

Companies that work remotely often expect a greater level of independence and responsibility from their workers. Depending on the conflict, consider what you and your colleagues can resolve on your own and where you might need a supervisor’s help.

Acknowledge the dispute by scheduling a meeting to discuss the issue in detail. You may have to hold several meetings, depending on who raised the issue and who else is involved. Don’t rely on a single point of view.

Show that you are approachable and open-minded by being willing to discuss any issue, listening without interruption, and by avoiding making comments until the right time. Make sure you identify and understand the issue accurately by asking non-judgmental questions.

Once all the facts and different points of view have been gathered, work together to find a mutually agreeable solution and consider how similar issues can be prevented in the future.

Brainstorm solutions together. This is a chance to build goodwill and empathy with each other. Turn something that could have created a division among your remote colleagues into something that brings you together.

Find your company’s policies on bullying and report any instances of cyberbullying that you or your teammates may experience.

Conflicts can occur in any workplace, but how people communicate in a remote or hybrid work environment shapes how conflicts happen. By managing conflict well, you can help create a better and more successful remote workplace for everyone.

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