How to defuse conflict in your remote team

And five signs the atmosphere is turning toxic.

by David Liddle
Last Updated: 17 Apr 2020
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All the usual rules of work may have been thrown out of the window – but the potential for conflict among colleagues remains, even in the virtual space.

The COVID-19 pandemic has plunged many workers into a pressure cooker situation. Large numbers have been catapulted into full-scale home-working, distanced from managers and the support of colleagues, while trying to get to grips with unfamiliar technology.  

Many are trying to juggle work with home-schooling, or are being forced to share confined spaces with fellow home-working family members, competing for bandwidth and shouting over each other’s phone calls.

Throw into the mix people’s natural anxiety about their health, their family, their finances and the future, and it’s easy to see how irritation, resentment and even outright conflict can take hold.

When their team is remote working, managers may have to work harder to spot the signs of discontent and dispute bubbling up. These are some of the signs to look out for:

-- A tense atmosphere in virtual team meetings. At the beginning of the crisis, employees may have been willing to go the extra mile and pull together. The longer the uncertainty continues, however, the more impatient and frustrated people will become, and the harder this team spirit may be to maintain. Disagreements cropping up over responsibilities, timescales and who does what are signals that all is not well.

-- Lack of support for colleagues. Team camaraderie starting to break down is also a red flag. If it’s the norm for people to be highly supportive of each other, the emergence of nit-picking, back-biting and gossip could be a sign of underlying tension.

-- Accusations of favouritism. Why is he getting all the plum projects? How come she only has to report in once a week, when I have to check in every day? Managers need to have their antennae tuned for resentment over the way work is being allocated or staff are being managed.

-- Perceptions of unfairness. All things may not be equal in a remote team, where personal circumstances dictate that some may be working restricted hours while others are full-on. Managers need to be open about how everyone is working and why, to avoid colleagues feeling they are unfairly having to take on extra work, pick up the dull jobs or get involved in tasks normally outside their remit.

-- Body language and behaviour. It is possible to pick up verbal and behavioural clues in the virtual space. Look out for body language that suggests people are not at ease and be alert to someone who may be quieter (or the opposite) than usual.

If disputes or bad feelings do start to arise, it’s easy to think that if you brush it under the carpet, it will go away. But now is definitely not the time to press pause when it comes to conflict management. In the current scenario, managers need their teams to be focused and engaged more than ever before, and not wasting their energies on damaging and dysfunctional spats with colleagues. These are three key steps you can take to maintain a happy ship.

1. Nip it in the bud  

Step in at the earliest possible stage to avoid small niggles turning into major meltdowns. Encourage people to talk about how they are feeling and to hear each other in an empathetic way.

2. Set the ground rules and reinforce organisation values

Acknowledge that people won’t always agree on the best way forward. Be clear that if conflict does arise, the aim will be to resolve any differences in a constructive and collaborative way, and to ensure the team operates within its values.

3. Keep the lines of communication open

Involve the team in discussions about how work will be managed and be transparent about decisions and arrangements. If everyone is clear about what is happening and why, and feels they have been part of the decision-making process, it is much less likely that conflict will arise.

David Liddle is CEO of conflict resolution company TCM

Image credit: NEOSiam2020/Pexels (creative commons)


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