There are no complaints about that certain team member’s love of stinky tuna melts at lunch time. Nobody knows if a colleague collects dozens of dirty coffee mugs on their desk or talks on the phone at eardrum-bursting decibel levels. There’s no arguing over the office thermostat.
But in other ways, remote teams are ripe for conflict. Collaboration and communication can be a hurdle (they’re the second most-cited challenge of remote work). And, when wires are crossed more easily, that can breed frustration, resentment, and tension.
Here’s the worst part of all: The physical distance between you and all of your team members means you might not even realize that conflict is spreading like wildfire.
5 Steps To Restore The Peace (Remotely)
Now that we’ve sufficiently scared you, let’s get to the good news: It’s more than possible to identify, resolve, and even prevent conflicts in a remote environment using these straightforward steps.
Before getting into them, there’s one friendly caveat. These steps can be used to address a wide array of team issues, rifts, and disagreements. However, more serious problems like harassment and discrimination deserve to be handled, well, more seriously—and often with the involvement of HR or other leaders.
1. Keep Your Antenna Up
As mentioned earlier, conflict on a remote team isn’t just harder to resolve—it’s harder to notice in the first place.
You aren’t picking up on the snarky remarks muttered under someone’s breath in a team meeting. It’s harder to see the eye-rolls when someone chimes in. There’s no obvious divide between two people who refuse to sit at the same table in the break room.
Your team members have more distance in a virtual environment (and that’s why loneliness is another frequently-cited challenge of remote work), which makes it that much tougher to pick up on conflicts before they’re massive problems that are literally dropped in your lap or in your inbox.
As the leader, you need to try to stay in tune with what’s actually happening on your remote team. Nobody can expect you to be a mindreader, but a few tips to help include:
- Observe carefully: Are there a few remarks in team email threads that make you raise an eyebrow? Do you notice one team member seems to interrupt or correct another one a lot? Do you hear a name brought up frequently in one-on-ones? Some careful observation about what’s happening—along with trusting your intuition—can reveal a lot.
- Ask your team: Do you know who has the best grasp on your team’s dynamic? Uhh…your team. Make sure that you’re dedicating some time in your one-on-ones to talk about the team and relationships. You can ask more generally about challenges they’re facing or even get more specific with a question like, “Is there anyone you’re struggling to work with?”
- Use your retrospectives: When you wrap up a project and do a retrospective with your team, make sure that you’re actually taking note of the information that’s revealed there. If there’s a place where timelines or collaborations are always breaking down, zoom in on that issue. Is that a process problem or could it be a waving red flag that you have a people problem?
Again, there’s still an element of guesswork here. But, these will at least help you keep your finger on the pulse of how your remote team is feeling and interacting.
2. Speak To Both Sides
Your gut told you that something was amiss—and you’re right. You’re now aware that there’s a rift on your team. Maybe it’s between two specific employees, or perhaps it’s between two different groups.
For the sake of an example, let’s say that you’ve picked up on some tension between two team members: Javier and Lucy.
Now it’s time to dig in and find out exactly what’s happening there. As the old saying goes, there are three sides to every story: yours, mine, and the truth. Your goal in talking to each employee separately is to find the reality (which honestly, is probably somewhere in between the stories you’ll get from both sides).
Schedule a private conversation with each employee to hear more about their experience and understand where they think this tension is coming from.
Keep in mind that your goal here isn’t to correct behavior, offer solutions, or get into “he said, she said” debates. You’re simply trying to get a better understanding of what each person is experiencing so that you can move forward with finding the best solution.
3. Get To The Root Cause
After those initial conversations, you know this much: Javier and Lucy don’t like to work together. From here, you could find a couple of ways to help them collaborate more effectively. But more often than not, that’s going to be a band-aid on a bullet wound and you’ll see that conflict rise to the surface again and again.
Why? You haven’t gotten to the root of the issue—beyond the fact that they’ve struggled to work together up to this point.
This is where a technique like “the five whys” can be helpful. The premise is simple: You ask “why?” five times. Here’s an example of how this could play out in a follow-up conversation with Javier:
- Javier: “Like I mentioned, I really struggle to work with Lucy.”
- You: “Why? Can you tell me more?”
- Javier: “Working with her just never feels easy or enjoyable.”
- You: “Why? In what way?”
- Javier: “Our collaborations always feel really stressful to me—almost frantic.”
- You: “Why do you think that is?”
- Javier: “She’s always bouncing around from idea to idea or task to task and I feel like I can never get my feet under me.”
- You: “Why does that bother you? How is it different from how you like to work?”
- Javier: “I prefer to take my time to think through something and hash out a plan, whereas Lucy likes to jump right in. I know she’s just enthusiastic about getting started, but it feels really rushed and haphazard to me.”
See how that helped you understand the crux of the issue? Javier likes to take his time and work methodically, while Lucy likes to figure it out as she goes. They have two drastically different work styles, which is bound to cause repeated conflict.
But, now that you know what’s under the surface, you can work to find resolutions that will help them both be mindful about how they collaborate and communicate.
Can asking “why?” this many times make you feel a bit like an overly-curious toddler? Sure. Even so, it forces you and your employees to sink your teeth in and understand what’s really going on—rather than trying to smooth things over with the easiest and quickest fix.
4. Squash It Together
You’ve done your investigative work to get to the bottom of the conflict, so your next step is to bring the parties together to help them squash their beef.
Small conflicts or misunderstandings are possible to resolve with an async and low-pressure method like an email, but larger disagreements warrant a real-time conversation where everybody has the chance to contribute and feel heard.
Ultimately, what communication route you choose to address the conflict will be up to you, your team, and what your unique situation justifies, but here are a few pros and cons to consider:
Best Used When
Resolving a quick and low-pressure mixup (e.g. a missed task deadline)
Recapping/documenting a live conversation (e.g. summarizing next steps from a conflict resolution meeting)
Emotions are running high and a team member is nervous about a video chat
Resolving larger conflicts that justify a face-to-face discussion
Regardless of which one you opt for, there are a few more tips to keep in mind as you address that conflict head-on:
- Schedule a set time: When you need to bring employees together to talk through solutions to a disagreement, you don’t want to spring that on them. Schedule a set meeting and be transparent about the fact that you’ll be discussing the conflict. That not only helps them prepare, but it also prevents anybody from feeling blindsided.
- Don’t let this turn into finger-pointing: You’ve already done the groundwork, so this step and conversation is about finding a resolution—not continuing to rehash the issue. If the conversation takes a turn toward placing blame or airing grievances, be prepared to steer it back to solutions, rather than the problem.
- Ask how everybody feels. You and your employees will need to work together and talk candidly to find a way to compromise. After doing so, make sure to end the conversation by asking something like, “Does everybody feel good about this solution?” Hopefully, that will confirm that the meeting was productive and also help you catch any lingering doubts or negative feelings.
Returning to our example of Javier and Lucy, following this meeting they land on a compromise: When they need to tackle a task or a project together, they’ll spend one hour hashing out a rough plan before moving forward. That’s enough for Javier to feel like he actually has a handle on where they’re headed, but not so much planning time that Lucy feels like she’s being held back.
5. Put Your Antenna Back Up
That’s it—conflict is resolved. *dusts shoulder off*
It’s true that the bulk of the really uncomfortable work is behind you, but don’t forget the final step: the monitoring phase. This is when you keep a close eye to make sure that same problem doesn’t rear its ugly head again.
Again, you can learn a lot through observation. But, it’s also worth checking in on the conflict and how things are progressing in your one-on-one meetings with the involved employees. Here are a few helpful questions to ask:
- How have things been going with [employee]? Do you think the dynamic has improved?
- In the meeting we had together, we decided that you both would [resolution]. Has that been happening? Is it going well so far?
- Have you experienced any new hiccups or challenges collaborating—either with that team member or any others?
Remember, identifying a solution to a team conflict is only part of the process. You also need to keep tabs to ensure that solution is actually working.
Conflict Happens, But You Can Keep It At Bay
Conflict is inevitable at work—that’s true for all types of teams. But, it can seem like the added challenges of a remote environment can lead to even more tension and problems.
It’s almost always better to address those issues head-on, rather than letting them fester (or crossing your fingers that they improve).
If your palms are sweaty at the mere thought of needing to candidly address problems on your remote team, make sure you implement a few more steps to keep conflicts to a minimum in the first place:
- Establish clear expectations and processes
- Prioritize communication and transparency (Trello can help!)
- Regularly solicit employee feedback to spot conflicts before they escalate
- Plan opportunities for remote social connections, so teams can bond on a more personal level
Will you ever completely eliminate team conflict? Nope. But, knowing how to mitigate it and address it will help you maintain a positive culture on your remote team—where people can collaborate successfully, while also eating their tuna melts and adjusting their own thermostats in peace.