Conflict in a virtual team can be insidious and appear a challenge to tackle, largely because it’s often difficult for virtual managers to identify what is happening in the first place.
Without a physical workplace bringing everyone together to identify and resolve differences, resentments in a virtual team often simmer out of sight, ultimately hurting employee morale, collaboration, and productivity.
Conflict in a virtual team can take one of several forms. It can be inter-colleague conflict, or conflict with the manager. Breaking it down further, the tension can be task-related, or it can be due to personal differences. Whichever form the conflict is taking, the task of a successful manager of a remote team is to identify possible sources of conflict and put in place methods to prevent or solve them.
Easier said than done, right? It’s not actually as hard as you might think. The first step is to take the difficult path and acknowledge the possible conflict, rather than avoid it. Avoidance of conflict is all too easy in any team, but it will potentially impact everyone’s performance and results if it’s allowed to flourish.
Identify possible conflicts
In a virtual team, there are common conflicts that you need to prepare yourself for.
- The suspicion/frustration that other members of the team are not ‘pulling their weight’. In remote teams where everyone has to trust that each team member is doing the work, this can be one of the most undermining factors to team cohesion.
- No-one knows what the others are doing, leading to task overlap and frustration at time being wasted. Different time zones and working hour’s only serves to increase this frustration as people spend hours waiting for replies for people that are offline.
- Because the team rarely know each other on a personal face-to-face basis, it’s much harder to form a sense of friendship and reciprocity (I’ll do that for you because I like you, or because you helped me out last time.) This can lead to an overly individualistic, ‘everyone for themselves’ attitude in the team, which is disastrous from a teamwork perspective.
- Email communication is extremely easy to misinterpret, especially if someone has an abrupt written style. It’s also been proven that people tend to be harsher when emailing than speaking in person, which can accelerate conflict within your remote team.
Six methods to implement that prevent conflicts
1. A good project management tool or virtual workspace will go a long way to keeping track of everyone’s progress, and it allows the team to see what others are working on and add their ideas. It also removes task overlap, and has a shared calendar so that people can see when others are working or away from the office.
2. Everyone should understand the expected way of doing things from an organisational and team perspective- the norms that are expected. Whether that’s active attendance in meetings, an intolerance for putting others down or interrupting, or simple matters like expected response times to calls and emails; it’s important to get all of these things establish these from the outset with a clear code of conduct and manners.
3. Assign team members to manage particular tasks, thereby creating the need for interdependence between team members. They all need to rely on each other to finish the project, so they get to know each other and trust more than if they’re just reporting directly to you as individuals.
4. Create human bonds with a closed virtual page for swapping holiday photos, recipes, restaurant recommendations etc- all the social things that would be spoken about in a traditional workplace.
6. When working in a virtual environment, consensus is even more important than usual, as it’s tempting to slack off if a person doesn’t truly believe in the point of what they’re doing. You really need to win everyone over on project plans in order for the team to get going with enthusiasm. Also, be sure to set short term goals with regular rewards so that the team enjoys success together regularly.
If you’re struggling to find a way through team conflict, just remember the four C’s.
- Create team norms
- Communication – everyone has a voice and wants to be heard
- Consensus – come to an agreement
Until next time,
P.S. When team working is an issue through conflict, consider coaching your team to appreciate and work with difference.