Conflict resolution within remote teams is a difficult task for any manager. But when the dispute involves employees who are working remotely, it’s an even bigger challenge.

And yet, home working is undoubtedly here to stay. The pandemic has simply fast-tracked what was already happening. Remote team management involves learning a whole new skill set. And one essential skill is how to handle remote team conflict.

Just like back in the workplace, disagreements between home workers can and do arise from time to time. It could be driven by team members not pulling their weight. Perhaps it’s a personality clash or differing opinions about the best way forward in a project.

The fact is virtual teams are more prone to breakdowns in internal communications. Messages can be misinterpreted in the absence of visual and verbal cues. Plus, there is also less opportunity to build rapport and develop team spirit.

Managers should learn how to identify internal conflict and find ways to resolve issues. And they need to do so fast.

Several surveys confirm that workers have embraced the remote work experiment. PwC, for example, recently reported that 83 percent of workers want to continue home working in some form post-pandemic.

Here we look at why virtual teams are prone to internal conflict. And we share ten tips to help you overcome remote team conflict.

Why Is Conflict More Likely To Occur In Virtual Teams?

Communication is at the heart of successful relationships in the workplace.

However, when working remotely, most communication is written. Body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice are missing from electronic communication. The absence of these vital cues we take for granted in the workplace can easily lead to communication breakdowns.

team-conflictIn this environment, a short and to the point message from a colleague could come across as rude or aggressive.  Most likely, that wasn’t the intention of the sender. Nevertheless, without those other cues, the recipient has interpreted it the wrong way. Hurt, resentment, and anger can easily set in.

Furthermore, people tend to be less inhibited about what they say on digital platforms. Check out some of the comments on social media, and you will see trolling is a widespread problem. This tendency to say things online that you wouldn’t if communicating face to face is also apparent in professional settings. Dubbed by psychologists as the online disinhibition effect, virtual teams managers should keep a watchful eye out.

And another important aspect of home working is that employees are in isolation. There are no casual conversations around the water cooler. And there’s no everyday banter as you bump into colleagues in the elevator. These informal encounters help build a sense of camaraderie and team spirit. You know your co-workers well and are less likely to take offense at a miscommunication.

As distributed teams of workers become commonplace, disconnection could become more of an issue. Your employees may be working in different cities or states. And there’s less opportunity to get together in person. Managers, therefore, have to work harder at building a sense of team spirit.

Handling Conflict In Virtual Team: 10 Tips To Overcome Conflict In Remote Teams

1. Lead From The Front

As a manager, it’s important to lead from the front and model the correct behavior. After all, the approach you take to conflict resolution sets the tone and expectations for the team.

Deal with any disagreements swiftly. Always have your virtual door open, so staff feel able to come to you with any concerns. Keep in regular contact with employees so you can swiftly identify and tackle any festering grievances.

2. Encourage Clear Communications

Often it’s communication or the lack of it, that’s at the heart of internal conflict. Whether it’s misaligned priorities or misunderstood expectations, poor messaging is usually the root of the problem.

remote-teamIdentify any gaps in communications. And set clear expectations for staff. In addition, make sure project teams have defined roles and responsibilities. Develop guidelines on how information is shared between employees or project teams. Use the social intranet, instant messaging, or stand-up calls to ensure open communication between employees.

Taking these steps will minimize the potential for confusion and misunderstanding.

3. Hold Regular Team Meetings

When it’s not possible to meet in person, then video conferencing is a vital alternative. Regular virtual team meetings help to build strong, connected teams. They also allow workers to get to know each other on a personal level. Employees develop a feel for how their colleagues think and operate as well as their sense of humor.

Team meetings don’t have to be too long. Since the pandemic started, a common complaint is that remote workers are required to attend more meetings than ever! ‘Zoom fatigue’ is now a real phenomenon. However, a quick 15-minute stand-up call on a Monday goes a long way to building team spirit. Conflict is less likely to occur in a team where members relate to each other as people and not just co-workers.

4. Tackle Any Issues Head-On

Tempting though it may be, don’t put off getting involved. Once an issue is brought to your attention, deal with it sooner rather than later. Unresolved issues have a habit of developing into much bigger problems.

And when conflict breaks out, the best approach is usually to pick up the phone or make a video call. That way, you won’t fall into the same trap of misinterpreting communications. And you will be able to pick up on non-verbal cues and body language. Employees need to know their concerns are being heard. So, use your active listening skills, and let them vent before moving on to mediation and resolution.

5. Look For Changes In Behavior

Most of us shy away from confrontation. We may prefer to keep quiet, thinking that perhaps we might have overreacted. However, sometimes that can quickly escalate to an explosive situation. Resolving any conflict as soon as possible is always the best policy.

body-languageTo that end, keep a watch on changes in the behavior of your staff. Possible red flags include a worker removing themselves from team chats. Or an employee going out of their way to exclude a colleague from specific discussions. It may even be apparent in team meetings that some staff are not interacting as they usually would. These are all possible indications of an underlying problem.

6. Regularly Check In With Employees

Check in with staff often. Use your regular one-on-one meetings as a forum for staff to air any grievances and concerns. This could be about the challenges of remote working generally and not just possible internal conflict.

And if you sense there is some disagreement, then try asking the employee about it. This approach builds trust between you and your staff. And it will encourage open and honest communication.

7. Have A Plan For Managing Conflict

There will inevitably be internal disagreements from time to time. However, it’s how you handle them that’s the real issue. Having a plan in place for managing conflict provides transparency. Staff members can feel confident in coming forward, knowing there is a resolution process in place.

The following three-step plan is a simple and effective way to manage conflict.

  • Step 1: Identify the problem. Take the time to speak to all parties involved and let them explain what the issues are.
  • Step 2: Get all parties together in a virtual summit. If possible, use an official mediator or someone trained in mediation to oversee the summit. Allow individuals to talk about their problems and voice their concerns. All sides should be encouraged to listen. The mediator should then lead a discussion on possible areas of compromise or ways forward.
  • Step 3: Confirm the outcomes of the summit in writing. The parties should all agree and sign-up to the resolution. And if a follow-up meeting is required, then set a date and make sure it’s in everyone’s diaries.

It’s important to note that it’s not always possible to resolve every disagreement. For example, you cannot force employees to like each other. However, you can find ways for them to work together despite the clash in personalities.

8. Celebrate Team Achievements Collectively

A positive team environment minimizes the possibility of internal conflict breaking out in the first place. Therefore, it’s vital to celebrate team milestones and achievements as a group. Remote team collaboration will be strengthened by public recognition for a job well done.

employee-check-inIt’s a motivating, morale booster that also promotes camaraderie and fellowship. And it’s a great way to relieve tensions. Employees that feel part of something bigger are more likely to succeed as a team.

And while you are at it, why not celebrate the achievements of staff outside work too? Whether it’s the birth of a grandchild, a fundraising marathon runner, or a significant birthday, celebratory shout-outs bring people together. And they also build those critical personal connections between your team.

9. Set-Up Team Building Opportunities

Look for opportunities to bring the virtual team together in an informal way. Of course, it’s harder to do so when working remotely, but it’s essential to make an effort.

Some companies have set up virtual quizzes, shared coffees, or bake-offs. Others have encouraged team bonding with shared professional development webinars. And peer-to-peer learning is another possibility. Teams take turns to showcase their work and current projects with colleagues from different departments. In a live video-session, colleagues can ask questions of their co-workers for an interactive, collaborative session.

These team-building opportunities help to break down individual silos and foster a sense of being in this together.

10. Create Platforms For Informal Connection

Managers should also enable staff to connect with colleagues daily informally. What’s needed is a virtual water cooler where workers can have casual conversations and be social. It’s easy for conflict to rear its ugly head if your colleague is just a faceless email address.

team conflict planMany businesses find instant messaging via the intranet a useful informal communication platform. Colleagues can get together to discuss non-work topics as well as professional issues. It mimics the communication apps that we use in our personal lives, such as WhatsApp and Messenger.

Set up a #timeout or #virtualwatercooler channel so staff understand its purpose as an informal platform. Workers can use the channel to seek advice on hardware or software problems, share tips on successful home working, or simply chat about the latest Netflix series.

It’s important not to underestimate the value of these conversations for workers that are isolated at home. Not only do they help relieve sources of conflict, but they are also powerful tools in safeguarding employees’ mental health and wellbeing.

Remote Team Management

With remote work here to stay, finding ways to resolve internal disagreements is a new skill requirement for many managers.

Conflict is more likely to occur in virtual teams, as written communications can be misinterpreted. However, managers need to ensure minor irritants aren’t allowed to fester into much bigger problems. Challenging though it may be, the tips outlined here will help you overcome remote team conflict.

MyHub’s intranet software can assist your conflict resolution efforts. Our easy-to-use intranet will improve internal communications and bring your remote working staff together. Explore the possibilities today with a free demo or 14-day trial.

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