It is impossible to avoid conflict in the workplace. But managing it gets very tricky when you take team members out of the office. Add that to the strain of staying productive during a pandemic, and you’ve got a recipe for potential disaster. One wrongly phrased Slack message could be all it takes to turn a team meeting into a virtual brawl. Without the option of a face to face reconciliation, how can you manage conflict in virtual teams? This article will take you through the causes of conflict in virtual teams, the ways to prevent conflict from occurring, and if it does happen, how to effectively manage it.

4 Reasons For Conflict On Virtual Teams

1. Communication gaps

Conversations are not only about words. Non-verbal cues like the way we move hands and eye contact help provide context and clarity to what we say. These are lost in emails and messages. While video calls make it easier for remote teams to communicate better, they are not quite the same as conversations held in person.

Also, messages and requests for information don’t always receive immediate replies. Your team members can not walk over to a colleague’s desk and get the information they need. Ignored or missed messages slow down workflows and can cause hostility.

2. Interpersonal clashes

Diverse teams are exceptional but also prone to misunderstanding and clashes. An assertive person might keep speaking over a quiet person.

Resentment, jealousy, and anger from these situations could simmering under the surface, causing conflict on teams.

3. Differences in work styles

The four basic types of work styles will determine how everyone on your team gets work done. Someone who speeds through work will feel slowed down by another person who works through each task at a slower pace.

Work styles have also been affected by the demands of working from home during a pandemic.  Some employees have work styles that have been drastically shifted, as they’re taking care of kids or managing other projects, while others might be able to stick to their regular work style. With each member of your team having a unique way they are most productive, you might see some clashes.

4. Task conflict

Katie Shonk defines task conflict as conflict that “involves concrete issues related to employees’ work assignments and can include disputes about how to divide up resources, differences of opinion on procedures and policies, managing expectations at work, and judgments and interpretation of facts.”

Procedures and processes have changed with employees working from home. This is sure to cause conflict over how things get done.

How To Prevent Conflict On Virtual Teams

Since you are out of the office, you’re less likely to notice when a storm starts brewing. Preventing conflict in your virtual team means you need to pay more attention to tiny details. Dave Nevogt, CEO of Hubstaff says you can be sure a situation is developing when a virtual team member

  1. Changes tone in messages or emails
  2. Lessens participation in group threads

Other signals could be saying little or nothing during video conference calls. Raised voices and avoiding eye contact are things you should also look out for during meetings.

So how do you stop all types of conflict in virtual teams?

Build trust to prevent team conflict

Dana Brownlee, a corporate trainer explains that “high levels of trust are necessary for team members to feel safe to speak up, ask questions, or make suggestions without fear of retribution or concern that their comments might damage their relationships or reputation.”

There is a strong bond between trust and team success. Trust helps us believe others will deliver on their promises. And when they do not deliver on time, trusting individuals gives them the benefit of the doubt.  Reducing doubt increases cooperation and speeds up productivity. Even though your team is miles apart, building trust will make them feel close enough to share their fears, opinions, and intentions, and help prevent conflict in virtual teams.

Create a team agreement

Team agreements help you answer three questions:

  1. What kind of information do you need for the projects you work on?
  2. What kinds of communication do you use to get your work done?
  3. How do you know what everyone is doing?

By reducing assumptions about information, communication, and collaboration, you can stop conflict from occurring. After deciding on how your remote team will work, you can use a tool like Hive to take notes during meetings, assign tasks, and collaborate on projects.

Maintain company culture while working remotely

There’s no doubt that remote work culture will be different from the norm. But your virtual team does not have to lose company values and practices.

To keep team members connected psychologically, you should consider recreating activities for the virtual workspace. Hive’s product manager, Winshen Liu has a daily virtual stand up meeting with her team. Just like in-office times, they share what they have done, plans for the day, and the challenges they are facing. Also consider virtual team building activities to be held after-hours or during happy hours — they’re a great way to keep employees engaged and active in your company culture.

Share a virtual workspace

Keith Ferrazzi advocates for the use of virtual workspaces to avoid mismanaged employee conflict. Use project management software such as Hive to share documents, manage workflows, communicate fast, and watch how work progresses from a single tool. This shared space will help reduce conflict in virtual teams across the board.

Improve communication to prevent team conflict

In the virtual workspace, over-communication is a good thing. Team members should send regular updates on their progress and ask for clarification when they need it. Frequent communication helps reduce conflict in virtual teams.

To communicate effectively on tasks, you need the appropriate remote work tools. Using a project management platform like Hive can give your teammates access to all of your tasks and projects you’re collaborating on with ease as you work in a shared workspace. Utilize task descriptions and subtasks to alert your team to what you’re working on and where you could need their help.

If you’re conversing over Slack or Hive Chat, encourage your team to send concise messages that state the bottom line first and include context for the receiver to understand easily. Video calls should also be used as much as possible, so that verbal and visual cues can be observed. During meetings, ensure everyone has a fair chance to speak and share their thoughts

Handle every issue immediately

Conflict does not begin when angry words and loud voices explode. It starts with small differences in your team.

When you notice issues or get a report, do not ignore it. You need to proactively understand where people are butting heads and how you can help. Bad situations escalate fast and you do not want to have to resolve a conflict that you could have prevented.

Check up on individual members

Anxiety levels are high. Everyone in your remote team needs a little more attention than before. A nasty and terse message to a colleague might have nothing to do with the situation, but more to do with how a team member is feeling at that point. Private messages to your team members will help them feel better.

But what do you do when all these fail?

How To Resolve Conflict In Virtual Teams

The worst has happened. There has been a clash and everyone is looking up to you to step in. But no one ever looks forward to resolving conflict.

Here are effective strategies for conflict management in the virtual workplace.

Talk about it

It is tempting to dive in without looking at the situation from all angles. Instead, schedule a meeting with your team members to discuss what has happened. A study shows that holding separate meetings, then having moderated joint discussions yields the best results. Guide them towards finding a mutually acceptable solution to the problem. Don’t expect to resolve every conflict in one meeting. For conflict that requires several meetings to resolve, set an agenda, duration, and rules of engagement to guide each meeting.

Avoid using written messages for these meetings, instead opt for video calls.

Listen to every word and be careful to remain neutral. Also, give feedback and directives on how to avoid or handle future clashes on their own.

Encourage empathy and understanding between team members.

Everyone is trying to work at maximum capacity. But it is not going to be the same as it was.

For some people working from home is a tough new reality. Emotions of all kinds are being felt right now and empathy and understanding the only way to handle it. Remind your team members to communicate while keeping in mind the range of emotions everyone is feeling right now.

Set clear roles and responsibilities

If your team keeps experiencing task-related conflicts, you should restructure hierarchy and work procedures to suit virtual teamwork.

Productivity grinds to a halt when you try to implement processes only suited for the workplace in a time of remote work.

Also, at the start of a new project, clearly designate tasks to team members with deadlines and hold them accountable. Accountability makes clashes over incomplete work less frequent.

Team building activities for team conflict

Conflict management in the workplace does not end with one conversation. Moving forward, you need to support your efforts with team building activities.

Mary Scannell, Author of the Big Book of Conflict Resolution Games explains that ”by participating in conflict-resolution games, team members build trust, improve communication, and challenge ineffective processes to create a team that is more productive and more effective.”

Take some time out to engage in a non-work related activity. Here’s a list of the best virtual team building activities.

Conflicts in teams will happen, but it’s what you do when they occur that matters. Learn to embrace them as opportunities to build a stronger and more productive team.

What unique ways have you handled conflict in virtual teams? Let us know in the comments below.