Managing Remote Work Conflict

The workplace has changed this year, and many teams are working remotely or working in a hybrid of in-person and remote workers.  For some, this was an abrupt change they are still learning to manage their new work environment. For others, they have been working this way for years. While conflicts arise on every team, whether remote or in-person, they can be especially challenging to navigate in virtual teams. It is important to understand what causes remote work conflict and how to resolve it to build productive teams. A Myers-Briggs study of 5,000 workers in 9 different countries found that 85% of employees experience conflict to some degree. Even worse, in the U.S., employees spend almost three hours a week on average dealing with conflict, costing the economy billions annually.  

4 Causes of Remote Work Conflict

  • Lack of Information – It can be challenging to relay information efficiently and effectively on remote teams. The transfer of knowledge and data is the backbone of any functioning organization. However, remote workers can’t just pop into a coworker’s office to quickly clarify a report or request. In the brick and mortar office, much communication happens by a chance meeting in the hallway at the right time. These moments are not possible for remote teams. 
  • Ineffective Communication – There can also be a digital divide between members of remote teams. Some managers and staff rely too heavily on emails for every communication. Not only does that not allow for the type of information we get from someone’s vocal tone and facial expressions. It is easy to assign a negative tone to an email that the sender never intended. It is also not seen as an urgent communication for some. We have all had the frustration of waiting for a vital piece of information to complete a project. If a coworker only checks email sporadically, projects can come to a screeching halt. 
  • Anxiety and Stress – Especially in these uncertain times, remote workers are experiencing profound stress and anxiety. Teams may have less than ideal working conditions at home, sharing internet connections and computers with family members, homeschooling children, and facing distractions they never had to manage at the office. In addition to those stressors, there is new uncertainty about their job. Without frequent communication, it is easy to jump to conclusions about changing priorities or circumstances. Team members may be concerned that others are talking about them behind their back or that the Executive Team’s lack of communication means the company is doing poorly. 
  • Social Isolation – Remote workers, especially those that did not choose to be remote workers, can feel isolated and lonely. Workers that feel lonely may become depressed and disengaged from the team. They may become overly sensitive to negative feedback or take quick offense to a comment in an email. Feeling isolated can create a “them” vs. “me” mentality that can easily lead to conflict. 

How can Leaders Prevent Remote Work Conflict?

The key to preventing unnecessary remote work conflict is for leaders to model strong communication skills and empathy. 

  • Communicate clearly and often. Managers should reach out frequently and be accessible to remote employees. When possible, use video conferences to have any complex conversations. While not perfect, they allow for non-verbal communication and more spontaneous interactions. 
  • Set clear expectations and priorities. Remove uncertainty about expectations and ensure that the rules apply to all team members no matter where they are located. Make sure priorities are clear from the C-suite to the front line. 
  • Ask more questions and listen carefully. Both managers and workers should ask more questions. Clarifying instructions and information is vital and will improve productivity by avoiding re-work. Remember also to ask questions about how people are doing. Taking time to check-in and find out how a coworker feels or what they are excited about fosters connection and improves teamwork. However, it is vital to also listen carefully to responses. An insincere “how are you” is worse than none at all. 
  • Celebrate wins as a group. Create opportunities for virtual group meetings for the sole purpose of celebrating success. Take time out to play a group game or have a virtual happy hour. Providing team building opportunities can improve morale, remind team members that their coworkers are real people with feelings, and promote mutual respect.