Managing workplace conflicts can be challenging, but when you’re working remotely then it becomes even more complex. Workplace conflicts can have serious effects on staff morale, efficiency, collaboration, retention rates, and employee engagement. And because of the nature of remote work, some conflicts can fester and go unnoticed for longer than they might do under traditional in-office situations.
In dealing with and addressing conflict in the workplace, it’s important to first understand how conflicts arise and what the cause of specific conflicts are. That is critical to help find appropriate solutions to resolve the conflicts – and also in preventing or avoiding future conflicts.
Understanding reasons behind workplace conflicts
Remote work conflicts and disagreements often arise for the same reasons that they do in a traditional office-based environment. People may clash because of their different personalities, because of stress and too much work pressure, or because they have very different values.
Workplace conflicts can also arise when colleagues think that others are not performing their tasks appropriately, not working hard enough, or are seemingly unavailable and slow to respond to communication. They also happen when there are misunderstandings about job processes and deadlines, and when there’s little understanding for challenges that people face in different cities or countries that are somewhat beyond their control.
How to manage conflict among remote coworkers
Below are some of the most frequently experienced forms of remote workplace conflict and management suggestions to help you address and mitigate them.
1. Communicate shared goals, company policies and track productivity
One of the reasons for remote work conflicts stems from ambiguous, unclear communication and lack of communication around shared goals, company policies and how performance will be measured and evaluated.
Managers need to communicate regularly and clearly with remote staff, and this includes hosting regular one-on-one check-ins and team meetings. This ensures that all staff have the opportunity to interact, collaborate, and get to know each other – and that staff have the chance to raise any questions or concerns. This can help avoid conflicts from arising.
It’s important to set clear, realistic expectations of your staff and to monitor progress so that any misunderstandings can be avoided. It’s equally critical to track productivity, and be upfront about how you plan to measure and evaluate staff performance.
Communicating shared goals, company policies, and your company culture with staff (usually during the onboarding process), is also a way for managers to communicate expectations so that employees know what is required of them.
2. Communicate transparently
The lack of transparent and inclusive communication can be a source of conflict in any team. As a manager of a remote team, you should aim to ensure that your communication is both transparent and inclusive. For example, if you have people located around the world, don’t always exclude someone because of their time zone being different. Rather try to find a solution that allows everyone to participate and feel included.
Communicating inclusively and transparently requires a specific mindset where you consider everyone in the team and their unique perspectives. It also means that general news and information should be purposely shared with everyone and not just select team members, as that could make people feel excluded.
Also ensure that if you are taking decisions that require feedback from the team, that you allow enough time for those in different timezones to participate and be included in the decision.
3. Set tasks and responsibilities clearly
In a remote work environment, frustration can easily brew if coworkers don’t know much about each other’s unique working environments and the tasks they have been allocated. For example, if an employee experiences slow response times, they may not realise it’s because of different time zones, if that hasn’t been explained.
There are also different working from home (WFH) challenges that people face – some places are prone to natural disasters like floods or hurricanes that can knock out communications and others experience regular power cuts.
That’s why managers should improve communication, host regular team meetings, and share team schedules. Managers should also clearly communicate each staff member’s roles and responsibilities as well as project deliverables and deadlines.
A project management system can also help managers to set tasks that are clearly visible to all and where project progress can be actively tracked and measured. This ensures accountability and transparency and leaves less room for misunderstandings or unmet expectations.
4. Keep conversations personal
When working remotely it can be tempting to always communicate digitally without any face-to-face video conversations. However, the downside of communicating impersonally is that you miss out on subtle body-language signals and employees also feel less engaged and connected with the company and with colleagues if that happens.
That’s why it’s good to have regular conservations that are personal, in the sense that they are face-to-face using digital video conferencing technology. Using email and text to communicate can be quite impersonal which can actually lead to misunderstandings, resentment, and can be quite unmotivating for employees.
5. Provide space for concerns to be raised
When you’re in an office environment, it’s much easier for staff to informally interact and raise concerns, to pop into a manager’s office to ask a question, or to discuss queries with colleagues. But when you’re working online, especially if you don’t have a close connection with your colleagues, it can seem challenging to find a place to voice concerns.
That’s why managers of remote teams need to specifically create opportunities for staff to raise concerns. This can be done by asking for feedback and questions during team meetings and during regular one-on-one check-ins. Managers also need to address any concerns raised appropriately, so that they build trust and rapport with employees, and should make themselves available and amenable to discussing issues so that staff feel they are approachable.
6. Ensure a healthy work-life balance for staff
Some forms of staff conflict arise because teams are stressed out – either because they have too much work or because they feel that they are not supported appropriately. It’s important that managers therefore take steps to actively ensure that they don’t dish out too much work, and that they adjust schedules if needed.
There’s also a lot that managers can do to help employees have a better work – life balance, and to offer opportunities to de-stress. For example, some companies run wellness programs which teach employees how to manage and reduce stress. Other companies organise outdoor or fitness activities for staff, which can also alleviate stress and create a healthier work-life balance.
7. Give credit and recognition
It’s important for managers to share with team members what each person is working on and contributing, because otherwise assumptions may be made about performance, workloads and schedules that can lead to conflicts.
Making it easy for employees to see what their coworkers’ schedules look like can help mitigate potential disputes and can also reduce inefficiencies. It’s also important to host regular check-ins with all staff so they can update each other on progress and milestones, and raise any concerns.
It also helps for managers to recognise and acknowledge staff achievements publicly and privately, to help motivate employees and reward them for their extra efforts and performance. Fostering a sense of healthy peer-to-peer recognition can also help build collaboration and cooperation within teams.
8. Get your facts straight
If you are actively trying to resolve a conflict in the workplace, a good place to start is to gather all the facts. This should be done by way of private meetings with each party to hear what they have to say about the matter, in confidence. Certain types of conflict will then need to be escalated and investigated, so you will need to first assess what type of conflict you’re dealing with.
Bear in mind that certain types of conflict can have legal repercussions, so it’s also wise to properly document all data you gather and information about the conflict.
9. Create staff engagement
Remote work can get lonely at times and there is a lot that managers can do to overcome this common remote work challenge. For example, they can organise regular team meetings, they can encourage social interaction and engagement through virtual coffee breaks or after-work virtual drinks or meetups. And managers can also actively encourage collaboration and partnerships through team building activities and cooperative brainstorming sessions.
Staff who are given the space to really get to know each other well, generally feel more engaged and happier in their jobs. And this can help to create a positive work culture, which also has beneficial impacts on productivity, innovation and efficiency. It can also help minimise the risk of conflicts, as staff have open and collaborative communication with their peers.
Managing conflicts and disputes in the remote workplace can be challenging. That’s why it’s best to try and avoid them in the first place. To do this, managers need to identify some of the common sources of workplace conflicts and address those proactively.
Should a conflict arise, it’s also good for managers to be trained and supported to deal with them effectively and appropriately, as there could be legal and reputational damage involved.