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Conflicts in a Remote Work environment

How to handle the new challenge in a ‘New Work’ world


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Niels Brabandt

3 years ago | 3 min read

Conflict resolution is never easy. When conflicts happen in a remote work environment, the situation becomes even more complex.

When people work together in an organisation, they usually are interested in either keeping the number of conflicts as low as possible or resolving conflict when sitting together and talking about it.

A remote work environment does not have this opportunity.

How to resolve conflict when people do not see or do not even personally know each other?

Media

Your choice of which kind of media you will use for communication is a crucial one. Asynchronous media have a higher potential for conflict escalation. You know this from your own experience.

Do you remember when you received this email where you thought it is now the time to make a strong and unambiguously clear point? You write an angry email. You, of course, mention everyone who might be remotely interested in CC, and then you send it.

The next day you arrive in the office and think that this might not have been the best idea. You are right. We read emails in the state of mood we are when we open them. You had a great day? You will see the positive aspects of criticism in an email. You had a horrible day? You will think that the same email is entirely unacceptable.

Are you a member of a WhatsApp/Signal/Telegram/Threema group? Have you ever seen how quickly arguments escalate and never resolve? Everyone keeps having their opinion, and in the end, anyone is angry and frustrated.

Resolving conflict means that you meet the people with whom you have a conflict. If a meeting in person is not possible, choose a platform that offers video and audio options. If this option is unavailable as well, use the phone. The vital aspect will be selecting any synchronous media to discuss instead of sending asynchronous messages.

Reason

Always distinguish between personal and professional conflicts.

A professional conflict might be a disagreement on specific approaches to reach goals. Use science, data, proof, evidence and benchmarks to come to the best conclusion. Always assure that your final decision is based on facts, not only on opinions.

Personal conflicts are more complex. Of course, people will try to resolve these issues. However, some of them may not offer any solution, so leadership during a conflict is essential.

Leadership

Delivering strong leadership skills is a crucial element when it comes to conflict resolution. Leaders can host conflict resolutions sessions or moderate between different interest groups. However, in most cases, leaders stay absent. Often they believe that “people should solve these issues by themselves”. When you hear about the conflict as a leader, they tried that already, but all attempts so far failed.

The ideas which leaders often have are far away from a scientific foundation. “Go for lunch together and sort it out” is a commonly heard phrase.

The lunch break is serving as the mysterious conflict resolution tool. How could science have missed that? By coincidence, the lunch break is outside working hours. How excellent is this approach? Not at all. Absent leaders in times of conflict show that they are either unable or unwilling to help.

Moreover, some people are not able to work together. We know from personal situations that sometimes, we just do not get along with people. How can you expect that this will not happen at work? “Keep it professional” means nothing else than “I cannot be bothered.

Keep working and stop telling me your problems.” when a leader makes these unacceptable statements. When people do not get along with each other, you at least have to separate them physically.

If you expect that people are willing to accept an unpleasant situation at work for a long time, you may have missed that this is not the typical work attitude anymore. Talented people will leave your organisation, and you will get a bad reputation as an employer.

Help your people to resolve their conflicts. Accept that you will not be able to resolve all disputes. Act accordingly and find the best solutions for everyone who is part of a conflict. People will always appreciate your help.

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