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Mastering Conflict Resolution in the Virtual Workplace

5 Mins read

While remote work has become commonplace in the past few years, workplace conflict hasn’t dissipated. As managers navigate the intricacies of remote work and different personalities, conflicts between team members remain a primary issue.

Even if they are spread out around the globe, all workplaces deal with people working together toward a common goal, and conflict is bound to arise when people are working together in any fashion. In recent years, remote and hybrid work environments have increased exponentially, reaching 23% of all permanent business models worldwide in 2022 and allowing companies to bring on more virtual employees. However, this increase in people working together will inevitably lead to some conflict. 

When managing remote teams, managers must take certain steps to address conflict effectively, including keeping an eye on productivity, listening to one’s team members, and ensuring all communication is handled professionally. In a recent study of over 1,000 remote workers in the United States, an astounding 80% reported experiencing some manner of workplace conflict in the last year. 

It can be easy for virtual work to lead to conflict — especially over email or Slack messages — as tone and intent can be difficult to properly assess, and having one team member take something the wrong way can quickly devolve into chaos if not quickly addressed. Here’s how to recognize when conflict may be brewing within your virtual team and how to best handle it. 

Lapses in communication

Nearly all conflict stems from miscommunication. An employee may believe that a coworker made a mistake, didn’t quite like how they said something in a meeting, or become confused about who is responsible for handling a particular task. 

Whatever the lapse in effective communication may be, it must first be identified if the problem is going to be solved. If miscommunication occurs for the same reason over multiple occurrences, a process may need to be reevaluated. If a team member is being too abrupt at meetings or not communicating well over email or messenger, a chat may be required to find out if they are aware of their communication issues and how they can be resolved. 

Personal problems

Sometimes, certain people simply don’t get along with one another — even for no reason at all — but conflict can mount if the relationship isn’t managed well. Perhaps those two employees can be placed on different teams or go through a mediation process to put aside their differences for the good of the workplace. 

Whatever the case, it’s up to management to keep a keen eye on their team members to assess whether interpersonal problems may be cropping up for one reason or another. 

“That’s not my job”

Conflict over tasks, job assignments, and role descriptions can arise if roles aren’t clearly defined, there is confusion over task assignments, or simply if a difference of opinion exists on how things should be done. Strong personalities can often overtake less intense ones and lead to conflict, even in a virtual space, especially if the business’s operations have moved from in-person to virtual work.

A recent study from MyPerfectResume showed that 46% of remote workers had used a messaging app to argue with a coworker. In the same study, 36% of respondents felt their managers were “too harsh” through text, highlighting how strong personality types and differences in communication style can lead to an increase in conflict. 

Additionally, people who have been with the company since their in-office days may struggle with moving to remote work. Similarly, newer employees who are adept at remote work may struggle to understand how the other generation does things. 

Managing conflict within virtual teams

No matter why or how conflict appears, managers must be ready to address and resolve it. In a virtual environment, conflict may not be evident immediately, and may even erupt before the manager is made aware of the issue. 

Managers must keep an eye and ear on their team members to notice any subtle changes that could signal a possible problem. Is a team member shying away from sharing in all-hands meetings, or has their once-friendly tone suddenly changed in their messages? This could all point to a potential conflict. 

Clear communication

Managing conflict begins with clear communication protocols. Establishing consistent communication channels is essential in a virtual environment. In fact, a recent study showed that 86% of employees cite a lack of effective and clear communication as the main cause of a litany of workplace failures — from lost clients to conflict between team members. 

Managers must set expectations for communication, including response times, preferred programs for messaging (such as Slack or WhatsApp), and suggested tone. When everyone is on the same page with the communication protocols, there will be less conflict over miscommunications, and it will be more evident when someone is not following the outlined communication expectations.

Active listening techniques

According to the Workforce Institute, 86% of employees feel they are not heard “fairly or equally” in the workplace. Managers should encourage active listening among team members because the workplace should be an environment where all team members feel heard, validated, and respected. 

Team members should understand that virtual communication still needs to have an expectation of respect, listening, not interrupting, and basic polite behavior. Likewise, managers should make it part of the company culture that team members don’t talk over one another in a meeting, speak openly if there is confusion about a task, and follow clear communication protocols outlined for the business. 

Timely conflict identification

If a manager is paying attention to clues, they can identify conflict in a timely manner, though it’s crucial to be cognizant of any tension or issues bubbling just below the surface, ready to burst. Addressing any issues promptly — even minor miscommunications — can help stop more significant issues from arising. 

Implement structured feedback

Structured feedback opportunities can allow team members to express frustrations or get clarification in a controlled and respectful manner because constructive conversations and, eventually, solutions can come from these sessions. Even if conflict is already happening, having a structured way of working through the conflict can help the entire team come out ahead.

Mediation and moderation

Sometimes, despite management’s best efforts, conflict will still arise. In these cases, a neutral third party may be required to mediate a resolution or moderate a conversation between the conflicting parties. 

Selecting the right mediator is key, and it can’t always be a team member’s direct manager. Sometimes, there is not enough neutrality to be effective, but when successfully implemented, workplace mediation can have a success rate of up to 90%, which is why organizations should prioritize it during times of conflict for virtual teams. 

In a virtual team environment, there can still be team-building exercises — such as trivia or “getting to know you” conversations — that can help bring a team closer together and assist in quelling possible conflict. Nevertheless, human beings working together breeds conflict in one way or another eventually. 

If a manager is aware of potential conflict, stresses the importance of clear and open communication, and addresses conflict quickly, they can help foster a company culture with less conflict and more cooperation. 

Shiela Mie Legaspi is the president of Cyberbacker.

Conflict stock image by Andrii Yalanskyi/Shutterstock

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