Managing Employee Conflict in a Remote Team

May 20, 2015


As anyone who has ever managed a team can tell you, conflict is an inevitability. In some cases the conflict may be direct. In other cases it may passive, but in all cases, it is sure to disrupt the working flow of your team and hurt your bottom line. When managing a remote team, these problems can compound. Without much physical interaction, team members will generally be less likely to hold back their emotions, and disputes are sure to arise. So who will the team look to in order to resolve their disputes? The manager.

The first step when resolving a conflict is knowing what has caused it. Though less is open to interpretation in a physical office space, a remote team has plenty of room for misinterpretation when sending texts, emails, or leaving notes for coworkers. As most people who regularly text have experienced, tone is something which does not translate well onto non-verbal mediums. If someone on your team is upset about a particular message sent by another team member, resolving the conflict may be a simple as a phone call to both parties involved.

Although in a perfect world, this would be the only type of conflict which we see from remote teams, such is not the case. Disputes about whether or not a team member is carrying their share of the work, whether a team member is producing low-quality work, or whether a coworker is infringing on another’s territory or client are all possible issues that may arise.

The best way for dealing with these issues is not to stop them from happening—conflicts like these are an almost certain thing within an working environment—the key is to de-escalate the passions of those involved before a situation gets heated. The lack of interpersonal contact in a remote team means employees are less empathetic towards each other. This phenomenon is known as the Online Disinhibition Effect. In order to combat the disinhibition effect, managers need to provide a working space—whether real or virtual, where employees can have face-to-face interaction.

If for example, employees are all located within a relatively close proximity of each other, consider giving the entire team a gift card to get lunch once a month. If this isn’t possible, try setting up virtual hangouts—not meetings—where employees can just hang out and talk. Give each employee a gift card to a local coffee shop and set a time and date to meet up. The simple act of seeing their coworker will make employees much less likely to lash out when something bad does happen.

Finally, if as manager you have already done all of the above and conflict is still flaring up, it may be time to take a long hard look at your team composition. Sometimes people are simply incompatible, and should not be working within the same territories, or near the same clients. Resolving team conflict is one half common sense, and one half careful planning. Though no team is perfect, with a little empathy and great management, your remote team can succeed both at their functions in the field, and as a unit.

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