Minimising Conflict In A Remote World

Jill Murphy
September 3, 2021

For those of us working in an office environment, or in ‘non-essential’ roles, we are now very experienced at working from home. It presents all kinds of new challenges, as well as opportunities. It can be more convenient – we might get more work done, we can adapt our hours, and there is no travel time. But it can be difficult if you’re used to working closely with team members, sharing ideas, debriefing and being a positive, encouraging presence for each other throughout the day.

Remote working can also result in more conflict unless we devote more energy to addressing two lead causes of conflict – communication and role clarity.

Maintaining communication while remote working

For many reasons, communication is often less effective when working remotely:

  • There are fewer opportunities to resolve conflict organically: when we leave a zoom meeting, no one debriefs after the meeting or talks informally to build rapport or a shared understanding of what was discussed or agreed on.
  • There are fewer incidental conversations, particularly between colleagues who have no reason to meet 1:1, but for whom a strong working relationship is nevertheless important – e.g. administrative/support staff and operational staff.
  • It is hard to read body language and facial expressions (particularly when people have their videos off during a meeting). It’s more likely we will misinterpret what someone says when we can’t see them. It’s also harder to pick up on other people’s moods and reactions to what we say (or don’t say).
  • When issues arise, it can feel very awkward and too formal to set up a meeting time to discuss it – it was much easier to approach someone in the office for a casual chat.

A few tips for improving online communication are:

  • Don’t mistake silence for commitment or agreement. People are particularly fatigued now, and when presented with an idea it can be easier to say nothing rather than disagree. It’s important to find ways to invite staff participation and input during online meetings, and make it easy for staff to share concerns and ideas. Even if this means spending 10 minutes towards the end of a meeting asking everyone to respond individually, this will help to identify issues early, and promote involvement and commitment.
  • When people feel isolated working from home, it’s even more important to check in with every person. In large group meetings this is not possible, so it’s important that small group meetings and 1:1 meetings are also held. It’s important to acknowledge the wins and give positive feedback – this has always been important but more so now, as a genuine way to let people know that they and their work matters. It’s also important to listen to the concerns of the people you work with.
  • There are ways to build connections and keep staff engaged, such as by changing the format and length of meetings; introducing new topics; and inviting participation from staff in different ways.
  • Take advantage of the different methods of communication that are available. Communication channels such as Teams, Slack and Google Chat provide a great tool for topic-specific discussions for groups and the organisation as a whole, and are a great way to everyone to connect with each other without sitting on a zoom meeting. At Worklogic, we use Slack and the topics of our conversations include ‘social’, ‘health & wellbeing’, ‘who is where’, ‘got a tech question’ and ‘learning & development’. Some staff use the tool more than others; the important thing being that it’s there if you want to use it and it’s easy to reach out to others if you want to.

Role Clarity

Many workplaces and industries have faced upheaval, and while role titles and position descriptions may not have changed on paper, what people actually do may have shifted. This can lead to a lack of role clarity, and confusion about the priorities and roles of others in the team. In addition, when staff are working from home, there are fewer opportunities for informal discussions about workload and specific tasks. As a result, tasks may not be completed, priorities may not be clear, and there may be confusion about the roles and responsibilities of other team members: all factors which contribute to conflict within teams.

The best way to minimise conflict is to ensure staff understand how the organisation and its priorities have changed; and how these changes will affect their work and the work of other team members. Given the high levels of uncertainty that the Pandemic brings to our lives (and the impacts of this on wellbeing), it is even more imperative for managers to have these discussions with staff, both in groups and 1:1. While it is not always possible to provide certainty, being upfront with staff and agreeing on short-term goals and priorities is essential.  The best way to maintain healthy work relationships and support one another when working remotely is to communicate in many and varied ways, and to be as clear as possible about roles and expectations of each person’s job.

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