The novelty of working from home has worn off and conflict between remote workers may be worse than ever. Sure, we miss the chitchat in the breakroom. And those who are lucky enough to have a corporate cafeteria would love to enjoy a great salad made by the company chef someday soon. But if going back to the office means dealing in person again with that one employee who always stirs up conflict, not everyone will be excited about the idea.
Preventing Conflict Between Remote Workers
It turns out that employees may be just as likely to have conflicts in remote work locations as they are in the office. Managers should be watching for these situations and try to head them off. One way to reduce potential conflict is to ensure that team members communicate with each other informally and regularly. Setting up niche interest channels on the office chat system can be one way to encourage employees to interact when they’re not in meetings. Ideas range from channels on favorite sports teams and TV shows to team challenges such as seeing who can walk the most miles in a specific week or month. The better employees know each other, the more likely they may be to resolve an issue before it comes a true conflict.
Despite your best efforts, you’ll still need to address employee conflict when it arises. This kind of conflict is sometimes apparent in video meetings. Pay attention to the words employees use, how they use them, and watch their expressions. If one of your team members accuses another of always sabotaging or ignoring them, you’ve got a departmental problem. If the accused team members scowls and angrily denies they are doing anything wrong, you can’t let that slide. You don’t want the rest of the team dragged into this nonproductive exchange. As soon as possible, end the meeting on a positive note. Then set up a video chat for the three of you and guide the conversation in the direction of resolving the conflict.
In his post for medium.com, Don Johnson reminds us that “resolving conflict begins with accepting your point of view as just one version of the truth.” While one employee may feel ignored, ask them if there could be another point of view they should consider. Perhaps the employee they have accused is completely overwhelmed in their remote work situation and hasn’t been able to complete many of the tasks on their list. Ask both employees to speak respectfully as you discuss the situation. Watch for signs that they are about to get emotional — breathing more rapidly, speaking through clenched teeth, tapping a pencil on their desk, or blinking more than usual. If you observe these signs, remind them to slow down and take a few deep breaths. Explain that your goal is to remove conflict so they can work productively together.
The Path to Resolution
People often have trouble articulating the truth. They’ll hesitate to say what they’re thinking. You can help with this process. Encourage each person to be honest and ask, ‘for what they want,’ says Johnson. Your accuser may simply say that they’d appreciate a response from their co-worker on when they can expect to receive their input. The other employee could agree that they will respond to an initial request within 24 hours.
It’s also important to acknowledge in these kinds of meetings that everyone is experiencing more stress than usual. The best way to clean the slate during a conflict is to apologize. Ask your team members to consider apologizing to each other in an exchange when you aren’t present.
As a leader, you should also set the example for how you’d like conflict between remote workers, and between all workers, to be handled in your organization. One helpful tip from Johnson centers on curiosity. It’s natural for some people to assume they are right. Instead of taking that position, open yourself up to another way of thinking. Ask the person you're arguing with to explain their position. As they get into the details, the heat of the conversation will diffuse and you'll have more information. This strategy shows your employees that you're willing to own any mistakes you make.