Identifying New Conflict Triggers in Virtual Teams
By Ally Smit
The COVID-19 Pandemic has been described as the world’s greatest pilot program for remote working. With little warning or preparation, employers across the globe made the difficult decision to close their doors and direct employees to work from home. This transition has allowed employers to explore new opportunities and identify innovative strategies to better manage their businesses.
Many employers decided to transition permanently to a virtual setting once observing an increase in employee productivity and a decrease in overhead costs. While the transition to a permanent virtual platform provided a variety of opportunities, it also highlighted some key disadvantages such as technology limitations and a potential increase in mental health concerns. Another aspect of concern in managing a freshly transitioned virtual team is recognizing new potential conflict triggers and adjusting policies and processes to address them.
Identifying Triggers and Preventing Conflict
In a typical office environment, employers learn over time what situations may result in conflict and may attempt to create better controls and processes to prevent the conflict from occurring. For example, an employer may observe that tension is high during meetings held before lunchtime and therefore may actively avoid scheduling meetings before noon. However, when a business transitions into a virtual workforce, new conflict triggers may arise as a result of communication issues, feelings of disconnection, and ambiguity. Below are a few examples of situations that may result in conflict across virtual teams.
In a face-to-face meeting, body language and verbal nuances help us to better understand and interpret the point that an individual is trying to make. However, discussions via email, phone or text prevent us from picking up on body language and verbal nuances and miscommunication may arise as a result. Although virtual employees can utilize video calling services like Zoom to meet face-to-face with co-workers, they may feel uncomfortable initiating one-on-one calls with co-workers.
As an employer, there are many approaches you can take to encourage stronger communication and understanding across virtual teams. Consider leading by example and encouraging employees to use video calling services whenever possible in order to reduce miscommunication from occurring. Additionally, consider providing employees with communication tools and informational resources to better help them write clear and concise emails.
Feelings of Disconnection
According to research provided in the Harvard Business Review, remote employees are more likely to feel disconnected or alienated when compared to onsite employees (Harvard Extension School). An employee may feel disconnected from their workplace if they feel that they are not being provided the same access to information or opportunities as onsite employees are. This can lead to hostility between remote and onsite employees.
If your team is comprised of virtual and onsite employees, ensure that virtual employees feel they are given the same access to information as onsite employees. For example, instead of holding in-person meetings for onsite employees and having your remote employees call in, considering transferring all meetings over to video calling so everyone feels they are provided with the same level of communication and information.
Feelings of Ambiguity
During COVID-19, employees are facing more ambiguity than ever. There may be concerns regarding their health and the health of others, the future of their employment, and their financial well-being. When an employee feels high levels of uncertainty in their lives, they are likely to feel stress and anxiety. Stress itself does not necessarily create interpersonal conflict. However, common results of stress include lashing out, irritability, and dismissive behaviours, which can all result in team conflict (Mediate.com).
One strategy for addressing ambiguity in the workplace is by providing your employees with transparent communication (Small Business Chron). While it is certainly not possible to address all the uncertainty in an employee’s life, an employer can at least practice transparent leadership and inform them of how the company is performing during COVID-19. Many employers have opted for the “no news is good news” approach, where they have avoided any internal announcements regarding how their organization is performing. However, this lack of information can greatly increase uncertainty and stress for employees and remaining transparent can help relieve some aspects of ambiguity.
Workplaces across the world are changing, and it is only natural that the ways in which we do our work are changing as well. While transitioning into a remote workforce may provide a lot of benefits, it is important to recognize the different challenges that it may bring and to adjust your HR practices accordingly.