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Settling Conflicts in a Remote-Work World

A man and a woman with stress words on their laptops.

​Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced a widespread telecommuting culture that many workplaces plan to continue, new problems are arising for managers.

With team members working remotely, on-the-job conflicts happen digitally, with disagreements carried out not through face-to-face arguments, but over e-mails, texts and intraoffice channels like Slack.

A recent study from MyPerfectResume shines a harsh light on grievances between remote workers and how those grievances can act as a tinderbox in a distanced and potentially fragile work environment:

  • 81 percent of remote professionals have experienced workplace conflict. 
  • 46 percent use a work messaging app for their arguments. 
  • Nearly 2 in 3 workers (65 percent) have experienced conflict with their co-workers—19 percent with their direct manager, 11 percent with an external manager and 5 percent with an employee working at another company. 
  • The cause of conflict came from "lack of transparency/honesty about something important," according to 18 percent of respondents; a "clash of values," said 9 percent; or a "false accusation," said 2 percent. 
  • More than one-third of respondents (36 percent) felt that their bosses were too aggressive in their texts. 
  • After enduring virtual conflict with a co-worker or a boss, 39 percent of respondents said they wanted to leave or actually left their jobs due to the problem.
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Remote Work

Disagreements Via Long Distance

Out of sight is not out of mind when it comes to remote workplace tensions.

"Workplace conflicts, which have always been around, are increasing in a remote world because people who can no longer physically see each other when sharing information or solving problems are missing the pieces of data that come from body language, observation and casual banter," said Beth Wonson, a workplace conflict specialist at Beth Wonson & Co., a corporate consulting firm in Carmichael, Calif.

In the absence of face-to-face interaction, staffers may misinterpret another employee's intentions, actions or reactions.

"For example, team members may focus on negatives such as 'He's not getting back to me because he doesn't value my request,' " Wonson said. "People can't see the person that they're waiting on may be working hard to find an answer, or is involved in another priority, or is delayed because they are struggling with issues at home."

Consequently, assumptions are made and conflicts arise around those assumptions. "If the two employees were in the same physical workspace, it's likely the challenges would be visible or more rapidly shared through impromptu conversations," Wonson added.

Not Seeing Eye to Eye

Misunderstood messaging is a common trigger for virtual workplace conflicts. When confrontations gain steam, it's easy for the situation to get out of hand.

"A remark that, when delivered face to face, might be construed as friendly feedback or a humorous comment might sound harsh and serious when sent in a message," said Cynthia Watson, president and CEO at Virtira, a Nova Scotia, Canada-based management consulting firm that advises companies on launching virtual offices. "Any of these could start a downward spiral in the workplace that is incredibly difficult to handle."

Watson said virtual disagreements can start over the most minor of misunderstandings and escalate quickly.

"For example, an auto-type error that replaces a word in a key contract going to a customer, last-minute demands that cause overwork and work product errors, or using the wrong collaboration platform to convey constructive feedback can lead to problems," she noted. "Most remote-work tensions we've seen are due to personality type differences, especially between co-workers and different departments."

Watson said she's seen remote confrontations heat up in the past year, and it's not a pretty sight.

"We've seen a senior manager making a joke at the expense of an employee in front of the rest of the team," she noted. "What the manager thought was harmless was perceived by the employee as bullying behavior. Unless this employee has a mechanism to express how they feel, resentment will start to build up."

Tips for Resolving Workplace Confrontations

With team members working in an environment where in-person interaction may not be possible, managers must hone their communication and team-building skills to diffuse remote-workplace conflicts.

The following tips can bridge the gap between feuding staffers and get everyone on the same page again.

Gather the facts. Before considering a meeting about a workplace conflict, contact each team member involved in the conflict by phone, e-mail or video and have them share their report in a confidential conversation.

"When you engage in joint consultation, you can investigate the matter, get evidence from others, and find out what applies to the discussion and what is still required to solve the problem," said Kent Oyer, CEO at MX Guardian, a cloud-based e-mail spam and malware filtering security firm in Chicago.  

Be proactive. Remote workplaces can be a breeding ground of misinformation, innuendo and missed signals, so a good long-term communication plan, implemented early, can help head off virtual work conflicts.

"Weekly meetings and monthly reviews can keep everyone accountable and informed on what's going on in a company's other departments, which also helps reduce workplace conflict," said Robert Nickell, founder and CEO of Fort Worth, Texas-based Rocket Station, a virtual assistant agency that has operated remotely since 2013. "Everyone on our team also receives a handbook that outlines our process for resolution management."

Clarify communications. Nickell believes workplace conflict primarily stems from unclear communication, regardless of whether the company is operating in a virtual environment. "As remote employees can't walk up and have a conversation like onsite employees can, we have to be especially proactive," he said.

For example, one of Nickell's salespeople grew upset with the public relations team when he didn't understand the distribution channels for new marketing materials. "He tried to get clarity with the public relations team via e-mail, but everyone involved quickly got frustrated because they couldn't get on the same page," Nickell said.

To resolve the problem, Nickell got everyone together on a video call to work through the details and eliminate the conflict. "That was key because actually seeing another human on the other end of the conversation tempered their responses and created a more understanding and inclusive dialogue," he said.

Managers need to "overcommunicate." While the term may sound ominous, overcommunication may be a manager's best tool for preventing or curbing remote-workplace conflicts.

"Because we're limited by technology to have those face-to-face interactions, it's important to overcommunicate to get a point across and avoid potential conflict," said Sharon Heimowitz, director of people at Cobalt, a technology testing firm in New York City. "To prevent conflict, managers should schedule standing group and/or individual meetings to give their team members a safe environment to share what is going on in their world."

For managers, having a virtual open-door policy that allows employees to discuss anything on their minds is a good strategy to ensure healthy relations between remote employees, Heimowitz said.

Acknowledge the elephant in the room. Being realistic with employees can smooth tensions, as well.

"Employees should be reminded that everyone plays for the same team, so if something is on their mind, it's important to discuss and remediate," Heimowitz said. "It's also important for managers to validate that working remotely is challenging, especially if it's new to their team. Everyone is facing challenges working remotely, whether it's experiencing conflict with others, failing technology, balancing work and home responsibilities, or other pressures."

"One of the most important things a manager can do is ensure that an employee does not feel embarrassed or ashamed for having raised an issue," she added. "Admitting to troublesome issues can be very difficult to put forward, but it helps to prevent conflict in a new working environment."

Brian O'Connell is a freelance writer based in Bucks County, Pa. A former Wall Street trader, he is the author of the books CNBC Creating Wealth (John Wiley & Sons, 2001) and The Career Survival Guide (McGraw Hill, 2004).


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