Employee conflict is a natural factor of any high functioning workplace, and whereas well-managed conflict has the power to increase trust and respect in the workplace. The unfortunate truth is that fully remote teams tend to have more, less-manageable conflict.
According to Lindred Greer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, because remote coworkers can’t see the context of the person who they're engaging in conflict with, "conflict in virtual teams is more likely to be negative for performance and is more likely to escalate."
Conflict in remote and hybrid teams has a higher risk of festering because employees are more likely to take professional criticism personally when delivered from a distance, and behind a computer screen. Conflicts tend to escalate quicker than typical face-to-face contact due to the lack of seeing body language, facial expressions, and personal nuances when communicating virtually with one another.
Conflict management is a strategy for addressing any interpersonal tensions or disagreements as a result of poor communication. When you picture conflict management, you might imagine two employees facing one another and working through their issues with the guidance of a mediator.
In the traditional workforce, this is a tried and true solution. But, when we introduce hybrid and remote teams with the potential to span time zones and continents, and typically requiring asynchronous communication, conflict management can be more difficult to arrange. In some cases, just getting all parties on the phone or a video conference call at the same time can be a challenge.
The good news is, not all employee conflict is a bad thing. Conflict management is not eliminating all traces of conflict, but tamping the negative aspects while increasing the positive aspects. You read that right, there are many positive aspects of workplace conflict. When conflict management is done effectively it becomes a learning experience for all involved, enhances group dynamics, and can strengthen team bonds.
No manager or team leader wants morale to be negatively impacted by unruly conflict, here are some strategies to best manage the conflict that arises in your virtual and hybrid teams.
When a new team is formed, it's common to organize icebreakers to introduce team members to one another. If teams are remote or hybrid these initial introductions can be overlooked or rushed, a choice with the potential to hinder communication moving forward.
A formal kickoff meeting allows team members to ask questions, discuss strategy, and bond with team members. This gives them the opportunity to get to know each other in the context of their work relationship which can minimize misunderstandings of how to best solve conflict remotely when it does arise. Kickoff meetings also provide a space to map out goals, communication preferences, and outline org charts to clarify team structure.
As the manager or leader of a remote team, task leadership is not enough. Instead, leaders must also be the example when it comes to team communication to ensure the remote work environment is as effective as possible. As a leader, your approach to any sort of conflict acts as a model to your team.
Whether interpersonal or task-based, your professional managing style sets the tone and culture of conflict resolution for your team. Within hybrid and remote teams, tensions have a greater chance to escalate past being regulated by standard conflict management practices. Get ahead of potential escalation by modeling the appropriate, professional demeanor in the face of conflict.
Due to the nature of remote employment, when coworkers are left alone to problem-shoot conflict on their own, the problems often fester over time. This build-up of negative feelings toward coworkers can lead to harsh words being said and the postponement of resolution. However, when space is held for employees to air their grievances and discuss a conflict in a respectful environment often times it can be resolved more efficiently.
Let your team members know they can come to you when they're experiencing conflict, and put a plan in place for how you prefer their conflict to be communicated. Book a weekly or monthly video meeting with remote direct reports and make sure not to cancel even if you don’t feel like there’s anything to discuss.
Email inboxes, especially for hybrid and remote employees, tend to be overstuffed with tasks and responsibilities. Remote workers also deserve a more casual place to have the "water cooler" conversations with their team members that they don’t have working remotely.
Friendly, personal interactions between coworkers make for more successful and motivated teams. To compensate for the lack of casual airwaves, start a new Slack group for water cooler talk only. Tools like Pragli allow teams to create a virtual office where teams can participate in icebreakers, hold office hours for questions, or participate in virtual water cooler discussions. By opening this space you'll create an appropriate place for the friendly chit chat that's the backbone of any well-oiled team.
Assigning team members to projects is part of being a leader. When you're leading a remote or hybrid team, assigning takes on new weight because you need to consider the geographical location of your team members. Typically, you want to vary your teams so the same people aren't always working together.
For long-term projects that require a high level of collaboration, you might want to partner team members that live in the same general location for optimum communication opportunities. Then, for less strenuous team-based tasks you can mix up the teams by partnering employees who don't live near one another. Reshuffling team members is a strategy that strengthens bonds between team members and introduces remote employees to those they would not otherwise have the opportunity to meet.
Without an office kitchen for coffee chats or a break room to shoot the breeze in between assignments, remote and hybrid teams tend to only interact when discussing work. Remote workers aren’t taking extra time to have informal conversations with one another, let alone celebrate one another.
Whether you celebrate birthdays, work anniversaries, or the completion of a long assignment, celebrating has a way to bring team members closer together. These celebrations don’t need to be extravagant: they can be as simple as, "it’s the weekend" Friday afternoon virtual hangouts. The important part is that you’re celebrating one another as a team.
No team is conflict-free, and no team should strive to be. It's how we manage the conflicts when they arise that establishes our strength as team members, and helps us stay motivated in new and productive ways. Looking for more? Check out these team-building activities for remote, hybrid, and in-person teams next.