If you’re like many people who worked in a traditional office setting prior to 2020, the sudden pivot to remote and hybrid work probably left you feeling a little off-balance. That’s understandable—despite a growing trend toward remote and hybrid work, the shift was not one most people expected, and it presented some new workplace challenges that neither leaders nor employees were prepared to tackle.
While workplace conflict is nothing new, managing it in a virtual environment is new for many leaders. Since hybrid work models are here to stay, it’s important for leaders to practice and develop new ways of managing those unexpected challenges. Below are three tips for managing conflict in the virtual environment.
1. BE AVAILABLE AND ACCESSIBLE
In a virtual environment, it’s easy for conflict to go undetected or unaddressed. When everyone is working remotely, it can be tough to know when people are available to talk, and conversations that should happen end up put on the back burner. When people don’t see each other as often, they may not think about calling each other or inviting someone to a meeting.
As a leader, communicate to your staff that you are available and accessible. If you sense that conflict is brewing, reach out to the parties involved and make time to ask questions and—most importantly—listen.
2. IDENTIFY WHAT YOU AGREE ON, THEN DECIDE HOW TO ACHIEVE IT
In some sense, this is good advice for any work environment. However, in a virtual environment, it’s even more important to start with these basics. Wherever the conflict lies, start with identifying the points of agreement. For example, if everyone agrees that the most important goal is to delight the customer, that’s a good foundation to build on. Employees may disagree on how to delight the customer, but at least the foundational goal is established. Now—how do we achieve that?
Even agreeing on the source of the conflict can be a good starting place. If two team members aren’t getting along, figuring out the root cause of the conflict and getting both parties to agree on it can be an important place to start on the road to resolution.
3. APPROACH POTENTIALLY UNCOMFORTABLE SITUATIONS WITH A SPIRIT OF CURIOSITY AND LEARNING
Now more than ever, it’s vital that leaders approach conflict with curiosity and learning instead of being right or assigning blame. The human brain can struggle with processing the inputs of a virtual environment—body language is absent, video conferences can produce awkward interactions, and e-mails without in-person context can be easily misunderstood. Understanding all of these issues can help leaders unpack some of the sources of conflict and build better virtual relationships with their teams.
BUILD A CULTURE OF OPEN COMMUNICATION
Managing conflict once it appears is one thing. It’s something else entirely to build a virtual work culture that discourages conflict from taking root. As a leader, there are several things you can do to encourage an open culture of communication and conflict resolution:
KEEP UP WITH YOUR ONE-ON-ONES
In a virtual environment, when everything is managed over online conferences or e-mail, it can be difficult to keep up with a schedule of regular check-ins with your team. Now is not the time to let those slide! Let your check-ins take on a more informal tone, and be sure to ask your team members where they are struggling.
WATCH FOR SUBTLE CLUES
If a formerly active and chatty team member is suddenly withdrawn during team meetings or terse in e-mails, it’s worth checking in to see if something is troubling that team member.
Yes, technology has its downsides, but without robust tools that allow for maximum interaction between employees, your environment won’t give team members the ability to communicate clearly and easily. In addition, if some employees have better equipment than others, that could send a message that some people are valued more highly. Be sure every team member has the tools to fully participate and remain productive in the virtual environment.
It can be really tough to avoid the temptation to micromanage remote employees. However, giving remote workers the freedom and responsibility to get their work done on their own timelines can foster trust and reduce the chance of conflict.
SCHEDULE TIMES FOR TEAM CONNECTION
Whether it’s a virtual team “happy hour” or an in-person gathering, make sure that you allow unstructured time for your team to connect.
The trend toward remote and hybrid work isn’t going anywhere. As leaders navigate the workplace of today and tomorrow, learning how to manage conflict will become more important than ever. Developing the tools now will keep your team happy and productive for the long term.