We’ve all witnessed some form of employee conflict in the workplace. Whether it’s a verbal disagreement between team members collaborating on a project or a general personality clash, conflict is hard to avoid simply because everyone is different.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many industries and businesses have transitioned their employees to remote work. There are many challenges and changes to consider with a remote workforce, and resolving conflict in this context is tricky. Communication can feel strained and instructions can be misunderstood without the benefit of being in the office together. It’s easier to avoid someone when you’re not forced to physically occupy the same room.
Managers and leaders have a new problem on their hands. But, although this conflict is a part of life, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. Some disagreements can help employees learn how to dialogue, solve problems, and see situations from another perspective…if leveraged properly, that is.
The following six steps can help leaders resolve disagreements between remote coworkers and preserve a team mentality despite being a scattered workforce.
1. Lead by example
You’re responsible for leading your team through the uncertainty of the ongoing pandemic. You should be doing your part to prevent animosity before it even begins. You set the tone for how employees interact, communicate, and solve problems, so be mindful of the way you speak to your employees during meetings. This includes avoiding gossip and negative observations about others who might not be present.
Tensions are running high, and many people are dealing with familial obligations and unexpected challenges. It’s important that you set an example by showing empathy and kindness to those around you through both your actions and your words.
You should avoid making offhand comments that could be construed as biased or mean-spirited. If you notice that employees aren’t getting along or that there’s been a disagreement, the last thing you should do is add fuel to the fire. When an issue arises, it’s your responsibility to ensure that the integrity of your team is preserved and that the conflict is ultimately resolved.
2. Take immediate action
Once a conflict is brought to your attention, don’t wait it out or brush it off as unimportant. Employees who are working from home will have a much easier time ignoring conflict or continuing to avoid talking to the person with whom they’ve experienced disagreement. This is why it’s important that you address the problem directly with all parties involved.
I suggest setting aside a time for a virtual meeting through your desired means of communication, such as a Zoom or Skype call. You can let both parties know the purpose of the meeting beforehand. However, I advise against discussing the issue in depth as this might give you a biased view. Your role throughout the meeting should be an objective third party who is willing to hear both perspectives and help guide them to resolution.
Even if you don’t think the issue is a big deal, it’s better to get everyone on the same page. An unresolved conflict might lead to feelings of resentment and it could negatively affect the rest of the team.
3. Never assume
When it comes to resolving employee conflict, never assume that you know what’s going on until you’ve heard both sides of the story. Encourage your employees to do the same. Communication between remote workers can feel strained the longer we’re out of the office. Thus, it’s easy to misunderstand someone’s intentions.
It’s important that you consider all the underlying factors that could be contributing to a disagreement. A difficult home life could cause someone to lash out in frustration, while feeling unsupported on tasks could lead to isolation and feeling overwhelmed.
Each of these scenarios could contribute to a poor attitude and increased conflict with one’s coworkers. Try to be open minded and understanding of what individuals are dealing with and do your part to avoid assumptions. By being a fair and impartial listener, you also encourage them to practice the same attitude in their dealings with each other.
4. Know your boundaries
Every situation is different. While some coworker disagreements will require your interference, others might be better-addressed if the parties can work it out on their own. I don’t mean to imply that you should turn your back and offer no guidance. However, it’s important that you exercise a measure of respect if the desire to work it out is expressed.
If you give your employees the opportunity to deal with their disagreement, you show them that you trust their judgment and that you’re willing to give them the space they need. Trust has to be earned, however, and if you offered chances in the past that have been squandered, you should be prepared to interfere.
Your employees all have different personalities, beliefs, and work methods. As a leader, though, it’s still your job to keep the peace and promote positive company culture. You need to understand when someone has crossed the line and be prepared to help them to see why their actions were inappropriate.
If a team member feels wronged, sometimes the most important thing you can do is simply listen. If the same employees have had an ongoing tenuous relationship, it’s best to encourage each side to really listen and hear what the other person is trying to say. You can help facilitate an open and honest conversation that gets to the heart of the issue.
By providing someone with respect and the acknowledgment that their thoughts and opinions matter, you play an important part in helping them feel heard. You won’t be able to control the way that employees react to confrontation, but you can ensure that they have a safe space to explore those emotions and deal with the aftermath.
6. Brainstorm a solution for resolving employee conflict
The last step in resolving conflict is to look for a solution. Remember that while not every conflict will end with both parties in complete agreement, you can still come to a compromise. You can all work together to strengthen your communication and try to see the situation from another perspective.
Your employees might never be the closest of friends, but it’s important that they find a way to work together. At the end of the day, they must show respect and a willingness to remain civil.
Resolving employee conflict in a post-COVID world won’t always be easy. However, it’s worth the extra effort to protect your team from low morale and unresolved resentment. During this time of high stress and uncertainty, you have a responsibility to encourage your team to work out their differences with respect, empathy, and patience.