The rise of remote work has brought employees and employers an unprecedented level of flexibility, but also many new challenges. The geographical and psychological distance inherent in remote work environments can intensify common sources of workplace conflict and create unique complications. From miscommunication due to a lack of face-to-face interaction to difficulties in building rapport and trust, these issues can result in an atmosphere of discord and dissatisfaction. Effectively resolving these conflicts is pivotal for maintaining a productive and harmonious workplace.
Understanding the Unique Challenges of Remote Work Conflicts
Remote work arrangements can exacerbate some of the most common sources of conflict experienced by traditional in-office teams. Without the benefit of frequent in-person contact and interactions, communication gaps readily occur between remote colleagues. Important context is lost when communication is asynchronous or lacks the verbal and visual cues of face-to-face conversations. This fosters misunderstandings as teammates misinterpret tone, intent, and meaning in emails, chats, or calls.
Building rapport and trust can also prove difficult between colleagues who primarily interact virtually. There are fewer opportunities for informal bonding and getting to know your teammates’ personalities. This lack of connection beyond formal work interactions makes it harder to resolve interpersonal issues when they do arise.
These inherent challenges of communicating through technology rather than in-person lead to a higher likelihood of conflict arising in remote teams. Unresolved, these conflicts significantly impact remote team cohesion and performance.
Team members become disengaged, morale sinks lower, and productivity declines. Collaborative projects suffer without active participation and cooperation between colleagues. Organizations must proactively address the unique relationship stressors of remote work to keep teams engaged and performing.
Here are five strategies that can help resolve disputes between remote team members:
Strategy 1: Establishing Clear and Regular Communication Channels
Communication takes on an even more vital role in a remote work setting where face-to-face interactions are limited. Implementing clear channels for ongoing communication provides a critical lifeline between dispersed team members. This forms the foundation for preventing and resolving interpersonal conflicts.
There are several steps organizations can take to facilitate clear and open communication channels among remote staff:
- Set expectations for response timelines to emails, messages, etc. to avoid misconstrued delays.
- Establish consistent weekly check-ins, either one-on-one or team-wide, or both (as needed). This provides a regular touchpoint to connect.
- Leverage video conferencing as much as possible to recreate visual/verbal cues lost in written communication.
- Provide guidelines on when to use chat vs. email vs. phone/video to prevent mismatched communication styles.
- Create a virtual “open door” policy encouraging employees to reach out to managers when issues arise.
With consistent and open lines of communication, issues get surfaced early before escalating into larger conflicts. Regular check-ins give colleagues an opportunity to clarify intent, prevent misunderstandings, and raise concerns in real time. This level of transparent communication serves as a solid foundation for healthy working relationships between remote staff. It also equips teams to successfully handle any interpersonal conflicts that do emerge.
Strategy 2: Encouraging Virtual Team-Building Activities
While communication channels provide a framework, team-building activities help supply the foundation of trust and understanding needed for strong working relationships to develop remotely. Shared experiences help colleagues make connections on a more personal level to counteract the relationship challenges of remote work.
Virtual team-building activities allow remote staff to interact in a more casual environment and get to know each other better. This helps colleagues build rapport even when not co-located physically.
Examples of team bonding activities suited for remote teams include:
- Virtual game nights using apps that allow play across locations.
- Remote movie/TV watch parties followed by discussions.
- Virtual escape rooms requiring teamwork to “break out”.
- Online cooking or crafting classes done together.
- Virtual tours of cultural sites or museums.
- Remote volunteering events that give back to the community.
Building in opportunities for remote staff to connect beyond just work helps them gain an understanding of each other’s personalities and communication styles. This fosters greater empathy and unity as a team, thereby helping to prevent and diffuse interpersonal tensions if they arise.
Strategy 3: Implementing Clear Expectations and Boundaries
Without the benefit of working in the same office, extra diligence must be taken to ensure remote team members understand their individual roles and the expectations that come with them. Establishing clear boundaries and responsibilities for each employee prevents misunderstandings that lead to conflict.
Remote managers should outline individual responsibilities for each direct report, providing documentation of the tasks and deliverables under their purview. Expectations around response time, meeting deadlines, communication protocols, and work hours should also be put in writing and acknowledged by employees.
Broader team goals, workflows, and interdependencies between roles should be clearly mapped out. Remote teams will benefit from visual process documentation, keeping everyone on the same page in terms of broader team objectives and how individual roles fit into the overarching workflow.
With well-defined personal responsibilities and team processes, remote workers can stay on task and have confidence that they are contributing effectively. Explicit expectations eliminate grey areas that too often lead to miscommunications, tension, and conflict. Keeping roles, goals, and workflows clear provides vital structure and cohesion for dispersed teams.
Strategy 4: Providing Conflict Resolution Training
Beyond establishing structural practices to avoid conflict, it is also beneficial to equip remote teams with the skills to address interpersonal issues as they arise. Dedicated training in conflict management techniques gives employees strategies to effectively handle tense situations.
Consider implementing training through online courses, webinars, or virtual workshops that cover topics like:
- Active listening and communication techniques.
- Tips for interpreting tone and intent in written communication.
- Best practices for providing constructive feedback remotely.
- Strategies for defusing charged exchanges.
- Collaborative problem-solving approaches.
Ideally, conflict resolution training should be integrated as a regular part of remote team member onboarding. Refresher courses can reinforce skills. By giving remote workers shared vocabulary and tactics to manage conflict, teams can proactively address issues before they spiral.
Strategy 5: Engaging Third-Party Mediation Services
While strong communication channels, team-building activities, setting clear expectations, and conflict training make it less likely for disputes to develop among remote team members, there are still times when conflicts may arise. When this occurs, engaging an outside mediator may be the best approach.
Third-party mediators bring a fresh, impartial perspective when internal efforts to resolve conflicts fail. Mediation provides a confidential process that voluntarily brings together parties in disagreement to explore shared interests and solutions. An expert mediator’s guidance can uncover the root issues driving persistent conflicts. The mediator employs communication techniques and negotiation tactics suitable to address complex employee disputes.
If you are seeking third-party mediation services for a remote workplace dispute or for any other organizational conflict that you were unable to effectively address in-house, Advanced Mediation Solutions (AMS) is here to help! We offer professional workplace mediation services tailored to the unique needs and dynamics of your team. With extensive experience mediating workplace conflicts for organizations of all sizes, we can provide the expertise and neutrality that is needed to successfully resolve conflicts and restore harmony within your team.
To learn more about our services or to get started, call our office today at (856) 669-7172 or send us an online message. We are ready to go to work for you!