During the pandemic more and more major companies are allowing or even encouraging their employees to work from home. Some like Google have indicated that this will last through at least 2021. Others like Twitter have said that the employees can work from home permanently.
While this flexibility can help the workforce adjust to the health threats from Covid-19, it brings with it a number of other problems that are not immediately evident. A major one is how to deal with interpersonal conflict. Conflict has always been a challenge for virtual teams, but it will become an even bigger issue as more and more employees work from home.
Conflict is inevitable in all teams including virtual ones. It is derived from people’s natural differences in values, perspectives, and goals. How conflict is managed will affect whether it leads to creative problem solving or divisiveness.
When people work from home they will not be in as close touch with other team members. When conflicts do arise, they may not be as visible. As such they can fester and people’s feelings towards one another can harden. Therefore, team leaders need to constantly “take the temperature” of their team members to make sure things are going well and there are no hidden conflicts.
Leaders should also work with team members to create norms about how they want to treat each other when conflicts arise. If in-person teams already have such norms, they may need to be adjusted if the team is transitioning to a virtual environment
Norms should encourage positive conflict resolution processes like listening carefully to one another, sharing thoughts and feelings about the issue, and collaborating to come up with solutions that meet the needs of all those involved in the conflict. The norms should discourage unproductive behaviors like putting other people down, retaliating against others, and avoiding dealing with the issue.
When conflicts are identified, leaders should move quickly to address them before they grow worse. When conflicts are prolonged, they can cause other team members to join in and take sides, which can complicate the resolution on the problem.
Leaders can talk with the individuals involved in the conflict separately, but ultimately the parties will need to resolve the issue themselves. Bringing the parties together and reminding them of the team’s conflict norms can get things started in the right direction.
Like most people, leaders are often conflict averse. This can cause them to overlook conflicts in virtual settings or to avoid dealing with them in hopes they will go away on their own. This almost never happens, though. A better approach is to see conflict as a natural part of organizational life and use it as an opportunity to explore creative solutions that meet the needs of the parties in conflict and also bring about good outcomes for the team and organization.
Craig Runde is the author of the LinkedIn Learning course, Improving Your Conflict Competence.