How to manage conflict in virtual teams

Viesturs Abelis 31.08.2023
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drawing of man who doesn't know how to manage conflict in virtual teams

Over the last couple of years, the world has made strides in adapting to remote work, yet one element many managers continue to struggle with is how to manage conflict in virtual teams. 

Disagreement is a natural part of any healthy working environment. However, left unchecked, it can quickly devolve into petty bickering or outright animosity, negatively impacting individual morale and the company at large.

Workplace conflict may directly lead to lost productivity, absenteeism, and increased employee turnover, with the overall yearly costs to businesses measured in billions of dollars

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Identifying and managing workplace conflict is already hard enough in an in-person setting, but with a virtual dimension to it, the task becomes even more challenging. 

To make matters worse, the virtual work environment is prone to sparking misunderstandings – messages may unintentionally come off as passive-aggressive, the lack of non-verbal cues may cause difficulty in reading emotions, and the geographical and cultural diversity of remote teams can further amplify issues with virtual communication. 

In short, managing conflict in a virtual work environment is a difficult but necessary task that has a direct impact on business results. But to resolve conflict, you need to identify it first, which is a challenge all on its own.

Man engaging in conflict management in virtual teams

How to identify conflict in remote teams?

While identifying conflict can be difficult in any setting, it’s certainly easier in the office. Managers can observe how people interact with each other and pick up on non-verbal cues that may signal trouble is afoot. A side-eye here, a rude dismissal there – tension is often palpable and may require intervention, especially if it’s beginning to affect work results. 

For remote teams, however, these small details are unavailable. Communication between team members is opaque as it typically takes place through private channels, and the nature of virtual meetings also severely limits a manager’s ability to spot friction. 

So, what are you to do as a manager? 

To identify conflict, there are three main things you can focus on:

  1. Keep an eye on team members’ productivity levels – drops in productivity and increased absenteeism are important signals that something’s amiss. Of course, there can be a variety of reasons for these, but conflict is a common one. Consider using time tracking and productivity software to easily follow your team’s productivity levels and their changes. 
  2. Conduct regular individual check-ins – with watercooler chats and spontaneous catch-ups at the employee’s desk out of the picture, a proactive approach is required to keep a finger on the pulse of how your workers are faring and feeling. During these check-ins, it’s a good idea to bluntly inquire about any friction with other colleagues. 
  3. Squeeze out what you can from shared communication – it’s still possible to deduce a lot from virtual meetings, public messages, and shared email threads. Any offensive or exclusionary attitudes should cause concern and warrant a chat with the involved parties to straighten things out. Plus, significant changes in how people communicate are also a red flag, potentially signaling the need for conflict management in remote teams.

Remote work conflict may be challenging to detect, but it’s certainly doable and worth the effort. 

woman hurt from remote work conflict

5 tips for managing conflict in a remote work environment 

Conflict management is more than just conflict resolution. Rather, the bulk of your conflict management efforts should revolve around preemptive prevention because if your employees start quitting due to internal conflicts, then it’s already too late and there’s nothing to manage. 

This is particularly important in remote work settings, given the increased difficulty of conflict identification. 

1. Establish clear guidelines and processes on how to manage conflict in your virtual team

Policies and communication relating to conflicts in the workplace should be consistent and clear. This also includes the internal company rules, as it’s important to have a baseline to refer to if it comes to conflict resolution. 

In simple terms, people must know how to behave, as well as when and where to turn if someone doesn’t. Plus, it should help make conflict resolution in virtual teams more equitable. 

women happy after conflict resolution in virtual teams

2. Manage remote work conflict by helping team members connect

We all communicate differently – some of us are more soft-footed in how we navigate discussion, while others are more brash. In an office setting, employees get to know each other and develop a closer understanding of what kind of people they’re working with, and, accordingly, learn to speak each other’s language. 

Remotely, however, these differences in communication can come across as rude, even if they’re not intended to be, sowing the seeds of resentment and conflict. 

That’s why any and all individual and group bonding events are worth their weight in gold. Learning about each other, finding common ground, and connecting on a personal level, may dramatically reduce remote work conflict in the future. 

3. Enlist the entire team in conflict management

Other workers are likely to learn about internal conflicts before the manager and they can be an invaluable asset for conflict management in virtual teams. They should be encouraged to step in (within reason) to nip any issues in the bud or at least report potential problems to higher management. 

This isn’t something that can be mandated, but rather a result of an aligned and motivated team that’s invested in its own success, once again highlighting the value of positive team dynamics. That said, shared conflict management training would be a valuable undertaking, as it may provide the team with a solid framework and processes for how to deal when conflict arises. 

4. Lead by example

How the management team behaves sets an example for the rest of the company. If the leaders are constantly at each other’s throats, it signals that conflict is in the organization’s DNA and may give workers a warped understanding of how to climb the corporate ladder, namely, by winning conflicts. 

Demonstrating proactive conflict management at all levels of the company gears office culture toward smoother seas. 

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5. Be fair in conflict resolution

When conflicts do arise, and they inevitably will, it’s crucial to address them with fairness and impartiality. Conflicts come in all shapes and sizes, hence it’s impossible to have a single template for resolution – circumstances should be considered, all involved parties listened to, and a proper investigation made. 

How you resolve a conflict sets the baseline for others and if it’s done unfairly, then people will be less inclined to come forward in the future, undermining your ability to manage conflict in your virtual team. 

guys managing conflict in a remote work environment

Managing conflict is a balancing act

Conflict isn’t bad by default. In a competitive corporate environment – remote or otherwise – some level of conflict can be healthy and push employees to go the extra mile. 

However, there’s a thin line between healthy and toxic conflict and where this line sits differs from person to person. In other words, while you shouldn’t rush to stomp out the first embers of friction or competitiveness, you should definitely do your best to help minimize misunderstandings and make space for fair conflict resolution when embers turn to flame. Finding this balance is the key to managing conflict in virtual teams.

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