How To Manage Conflicts In Remote Teams

Recent quarantine measures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic forced many colocated teams to become remote. Many workers found themselves in a completely new and uncommon situation of collaboration without any physical presence and face-to-face contact with their colleagues. The remote communication via Zoom or other video chat platforms seemed to be a good workaround in this situation, however, it brought up a lot of challenges. While the first month of remote work during the quarantine was quite enjoyable, during the second month, I have noticed that the tension between people in my teams has increased. Personal conflicts began to emerge even in formerly prosperous and friendly groups. So, the question arose: “How to deal with this?”

In this article, I share my thoughts on how to manage conflicts in a remote team.

Why conflicts emerge in remote teams

From my point of view, one of the most common reasons for conflicts in remote teams is miscommunication. When you communicate face-to-face, you have a lot of indirect signals in your arsenal that help you to convey the message, such as facial expressions, gesticulation, tone of voice. But when you start working remotely from your colleagues, your way of communication with them is significantly changed. Fortunately, we have a lot of videoconference tools like Zoom, with enough functionality allowing us to get almost as much communication experience as we have in real life. However, Zoom video conferences are used mostly for group meetings. When it comes to peer-to-peer communication, a text chat remains the most common channel. Unfortunately, text messages can be easily misread because when you’re reading a text message, you are trying to voice it in your head. Depending on your current mood and context, you may misinterpret the initial message and take it as if your colleague were trying to push on you or offend you, however, it might not be the case at all. This often leads to tension and potential conflicts.

Another cause of conflicts in remote teams is a phenomenon known as ‘online disinhibition effect’, the essence of which is that people tend to abandon their social inhibitions and devalue their moral obligations when they’re doing virtual communication. Scientists don’t know much about the root of such behavior, but there are a number of studies proving that people really behave more brutally when they are not face-to-face with their interlocutors. You may often see this effect in action when reading comments under a controversial post on Facebook. People who don’t know each other reveal their aggression and hurt each other easily just because they have different opinions.

Two major types of conflicts in a workspace

On a high level, I would divide all conflicts that may emerge in a workspace into two types: professional and personal.

Professional conflict

Professional conflict implies that there is no initial aversion between conflicting parties, they just have different points of view on their current work issues. Professional conflicts are easier to manage, however, quite often, a conflict started as a professional one may turn into a personal one with the time. The duty of a manager is not to let this transition happen.  

Professional conflicts may break out in the following situations:

  • Disagreement on the technical solution
  • Misunderstanding of requirements
  • Not properly defined roles and responsibilities 
  • Poor processes on the project resulting in time pressure and stress
  • Poor company culture

Personal conflict

In contrast to a professional conflict, the root cause of personal conflict is mutual resentment between two or more people. The tricky thing about personal conflicts in a working environment is that it is difficult to spot them because a personal conflict may be disguised as a professional conflict. It takes experience, observation, and deduction for a project manager to understand the root cause of the tension and conflict situations in this case.

Personal conflicts may emerge in the following situations:

  • Innate hostile behavior of one or both of the conflict sides 
  • Conflict of interests
  • Different mindsets accompanied by lack of empathy
  • Xenophobia 

How to spot conflict in a remote team

Managing a team of remote employees complicates conflict identification greatly. The matter is that most conflict situations are escalating out of your sight in direct virtual communication between people: in individual chats, email threads, or peer-to-peer conference calls. If you’re watching a conflict between two people on a group call, this is most likely a culmination of the conflict situation, in other words, an acute stage of the conflict that has been developing for a certain period. As it is really difficult to resolve conflicts at this stage, you’d better know about the conflict at its earlier stage. But how to spot a conflict at an earlier stage when most of the interpersonal communication in remote teams is going on behind your back? Well, there are some signs revealing that something wrong is happening between your team members.

The signs of a potential conflict in a remote team

  1. Behavioral changes. The situation of conflict is uncommon and unpleasant for most of the people, it is a problem. When people are in a conflict, it often impacts their usual behavior, and these behavioral changes become really obvious. For example, a person who previously was proactive on the calls may become quiet and passive. A person who was actively involved in a discussion may get distracted and lose the talk thread. If you notice any significant changes in your employee’s behavior, it makes sense to talk to this person as soon as possible. 
  2. Performance drop. Worsening of productivity is another sign of a potential conflict. The destructive power of conflict strikes productivity on two fronts. At first, it takes people’s precious time, because they waste a lot of their time on bickering and sorting things out. The second vector of attack is people’s energy. A conflict situation is exhausting for both parties, and the longer situation is escalating, the less energy remains for any productive things. Keep a close eye on remote people’s productivity, and, if you see that it has dropped suddenly, take it as a warning sign.
  3. Complaints and finger-pointing. If people start to complain at meetings, this is a real sign that they are dissatisfied with something. At the first stages of the conflict, not everyone will show aggression against their opponent, but as the conflict is dragging on, people will be more willing to attack their adversary in public. If you notice any barbs addressed by one person to another at the meeting, it may be a sign of conflict if it has never happened before. So, stay alert! If you see that the situation repeats again, it is certainly a red flag. Go and talk to your people!
  4. Repetitive disagreements. A regular disagreement between team members as well as arguing on working issues is pretty common in healthy project teams. However, if you notice that disagreements between particular people become very frequent and the arguments don’t seem to be common sense, it’s time to set off alarm bells.

Conflict prevention measures

I believe that anyone who has dealt with conflicts before can confirm that resolving conflict at its peak is a very difficult task. That’s why it is very beneficial to spot the conflict and get involved in its resolution at its early stage. However, it’s even better to do everything in order to minimize conflict occurrences in the team. Let’s see what instruments project managers can use in order to prevent and mitigate conflicts in remote teams.

  1. Setup good processes. I believe that good processes on a project is a key to conflict prevention. By good processes, I mean things that make the life of every team member easier and help the whole team to achieve the final outcome. In simple words, it means that everyone knows what to do (and how to do it), where his or her zone of responsibilities starts and where it ends, what the expected outcome of the whole project or iteration is, etc. Establishing good processes and embracing continuous improvement on your project reduces chaos and stress levels. The lower the stress level in your team is, the fewer chances for a conflict to break out will be. 
  2. Have regular one-on-one meetings. Simply having regular one-on-ones with your teammates, you’ll be able to identify a lot of potential conflicts in your team. If you’re trusted by your subordinates, they will probably share with you that they’re involved in a conflict situation. Sadly, it’s not always the case. However, if you ask the right questions, you can reveal a potential conflict even from the most tacit person. Ask people how they are feeling on the project, ask for feedback on other team members, and then you will know about the team morale.
  3. Conduct anonymous surveys. If you have a big team and no time to talk to everyone regularly, or if you feel that the level of trust in the team is not as good as you’d like it to be, you may use anonymous surveys in order to get information on the team’s mood and potential conflicts. Properly designed questions and subsequent analysis of the responses will reveal not only possible conflict situations in your team but many other issues. 

How to stop conflict escalation at a remote meeting

If a conflict between your team members has been progressing behind your back and you have missed its initial phases, you may soon become a witness of its culmination. There are two common ways how it can happen. The first and the easiest one is when conflicting parties decide to inform you about the conflict and involve you in its resolution as an authority. In this case, you have to listen to the story of both parties separately and then apply any of the conflict resolution strategies depending on your context.

Another case is when a conflict between team members shoots out in a group meeting. In such cases, confrontation usually escalates very quickly and may become real stress for all the present participants. It may start with innocent disagreement on working issues, but might get personal in a matter of seconds and even turn into abuse and swearing. Your goal here as a facilitator is to nip in the bud the confrontation and minimize its impact on other team members. 

Here is a step by step guide on what you can do to stop the conflict escalation at the meeting

  1. Shift the focus back to the topic of the meeting. Remind everyone what the initial goal of the meeting is, what items you need to discuss, and what problem you’re trying to resolve. State politely that the personal dispute of some participants does not contribute to the goal of the meeting and ask to proceed discussion on the things that matter.
  2. Call conflicting parties to respect each other. If the confrontation between conflicting parties keeps occurring during the meeting, try appealing to conflicting parties for showing respect for each other and the rest of the meeting participants. State that this is not how we, as a team, treat each other and ask them to behave politely and gracefully.
  3. End the call. If nothing helps, the only option you have is to end the call. Apologize to the rest of the participants and tell them that you will regroup later. 

Regardless of what helped you to stop conflict escalation at the meeting, schedule separate calls with both parties, figure out what the matter is, and proceed with common conflict resolution techniques.

This is how I see managing conflicts in remote teams. How do you deal with conflicts in your remote teams? Please, share in the comments.

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