Some conflict in the workplace is inevitable. Provided it’s well managed, it can even help to spark new ideas and allow fresh perspectives to emerge. Yet managing disagreements when some or all team members are working remotely can be challenging, especially when most didn’t work from home before the pandemic. Respect and transparency are the keys to reducing toxicity and counter-productive fights.

The move towards remote work across many businesses hasn’t eliminated the challenges of office politics and workplace rivalries. In fact, in some work settings, remote work has actually worsened conflict because companies have not replaced their usual face-to-face communications and interactions with effective alternatives.

What’s more, in the absence of body language cues, it’s all too easy for employees to misunderstand each other. With ‘online disinhibition effect’—the fact that many people will say things online they wouldn’t in person—added to the mix, there is even more potential for conflict. A tactless email or a misunderstood joke on Microsoft Teams can quickly turn into a flame war, followed by weeks of simmering tension.

In the absence of opportunities for face-to-face mediation and reconciliation, managers need to find other ways to enable healthy debate and disagreement and to prevent counterproductive clashes and tension. Here are a few ways that team leaders and businesses can foster healthy collaboration in remote settings:

  1. Set clear policies and expectations 

Remote work is still relatively new to some employees, and they may still be unsure of which procedures and protocols to follow. Setting clear expectations can help to diffuse some of the tensions that may arise when some feel they are working harder than others or when working styles clash.

A useful remote working policy will codify things like:

  • Hours workers should be available to their colleagues;
  • Turnaround times for answering emails and instant messages;
  • Which tools, platforms and formats to use to share information;
  • Who needs to be kept in the loop about certain meetings and projects; and
  • Where to get help in the event of a dispute.
  1. Put the right tools in place to encourage transparency and collaboration 

The face-to-face working environment can’t be completely replicated in the virtual world, which is where modern collaboration tools come into play. These tools foster communication, transparency and accountability, helping to prevent misunderstandings about the next action in a job or who is responsible for the next deadline.

Platforms like Teams make it easy for teams to share documents, update each other about progress and blockages, and engage in casual chatter. Project management solutions like Hive or Asana enable teams to keep track of tasks and projects, with a transparent view of who is responsible for different duties.

  1. Overcommunicate 

Many of the conflicts that arise in remote working comes down to plain old miscommunication or misunderstanding. Team leaders and managers should thus err on the side of overcommunicating rather than on the side of under-communicating. They should use every tool at their disposal—team emails, Microsoft Teams status updates, and one-to-one and group meetings—to get the point across. This shouldn’t be a one-way process of managers telling employees what is expected of them—it should also create a safe space for team members to share what their work experience is like.

  1. Make time for informal interactions between team members 

At this stage of the pandemic, most of us are fatigued by Zoom calls and Teams meetings. However, practices such as virtual coffees or Friday team drinks can help keep team members connected to each other. Encouraging bonding between team members will help foster personal relationships and mutual empathy at a time when there’s a danger of workplace interactions becoming purely transactional.

  1. Don’t allow small disagreements to fester 

Blow-outs where people exchange floods of angry emails or yell at each other over the phone don’t usually come out of nowhere. They usually explode after weeks or months of tension that begin from small differences among team leaders or perceived slights that people ignore because they don’t want to rock the boat.

Team leaders should keep an eye on the little disagreements and resentments, and seek to resolve them before they escalate. This underlines the importance of hosting regular team and one-on-one meetings to keep track of dynamics in the team, and of keeping a virtual door open for employees to raise their concerns.

  1. Recognise team achievements

To promote camaraderie in remote teams, tilt some of the rewards and incentives to recognising team achievements. This can help align teams behind shared goals and promote closer collaboration. Also, encourage team members to celebrate each other’s hard work and achievements. This can create an environment in which each employee is rooting for each other.

  1. Develop a formal process for handling conflict 

Since conflict is a fact of life, it’s important to put processes in place to defuse tensions in a fair, consistent way that limits damage to the business. Ariel Meadow Stallings, founder of the digital publishing company Offbeat Empire, shares her approach:

  • Identify the problem by asking team members to explain their disagreement and scheduling time to discuss the problems further.
  • Hold a summit where a mediator can listen to their concerns, clarify the issues, and suggest resolutions and compromises.
  • Follow up in writing once an agreement is reached.

Growing through conflict 

When  productively and sensitively handled, debate and respectful disagreement can help teams and the business to grow. Resolving conflicts can help foster understanding between employees, clarify expectations in the business and build better team relationships. In a remote setting, it needs to be handled with even more care than usual, especially during a time when emotions are running high.

Conflict resolution is, of course,  just one of the challenges we face as we navigate the future of work in a post-pandemic world.

Please join me for our ‘Living through disruption’ webinar on 26 August 2021 at 11:00, where we will explore some of the human, business and tech challenges of the remote working world.

Speakers and panellists will include:

  • Shirlinia Martins, General manager, Channel Sales at Tarsus Distribution
  • Bev Hancock, Conversational Catalyst, Strategic Facilitator and Interactive Presenter
  • Siphiwe Moyo, CEO of Paradigm People Solutions


[Photo by Tumisu from Pixabay ]