3 Tips for Dealing with Conflict in a Remote Work Environment

March 14, 2022
March 14, 2022 Jamie Notter

I’ve heard it a lot over the last two years—conflict is on the rise in organizations since we all went remote. Part of it must be the general stress that everyone is feeling, with a global pandemic, incendiary politics, and now, just for good measure, a war. All this can leave us with a bit of a short fuse.

Part of it, however, is us learning how to navigate relationships and getting work done in a remote environment. This has been new to all of us, so we’re still finding our way. And conflict was already a challenge when we were all in person, so it definitely hasn’t gotten any easier.

I started my career in the conflict resolution field, so I’ve been doing conflict resolution training for decades (and our online course on conflict is here). All of the content in our course is relevant in a remote environment, but here are some additional tips.

Schedule time for disagreement. On video calls, it’s harder to bring things up that aren’t on the agenda. Plus we’re all sick of being on zoom or teams calls anyway, so you don’t want to be that person who extends the meeting. That means that, on average, people now have a lot more items that they disagree on that they are NOT talking about. So literally carve out time on some agendas (not necessarily all of them) to bring up challenges, disagreements, or other conflicts. Make it a normal thing to do. If it’s not coming naturally, then “shape the path,” as the Heath brothers would say (see their book, Switch), by adding agenda time for conflict.

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Ignore emails and chats. Asynchronous communication is hugely important for collaboration in general, but it should be almost entirely ignored in conflict situations. Don’t obsess about what the other person said on slack or in that email. In fact, ignore it, other than using it as an excuse to get on a video call to discuss whatever the issue is. In the call, don’t refer back to the email (much) and focus more on asking questions of the other party and explore the issue with new eyes. You’d be surprised at how much you make up in your head about what the other person thought, felt, or intended based on a few strings of text on a screen. Conflicts will be resolved when you can hear what they are thinking and feeling directly, and then ask questions to clarify, going back and forth. Conflicts are resolved with synchronous communication. Period.

Try to get in person for the tough group conflicts. I have facilitated group conflict conversations over zoom, and it can be done, but it is certainly not ideal. And if it’s a really tough one, you may have people text-chatting on the side, which is never positive. This may be surprising to you, but there is sometimes a need in group conflicts for people to be talking over each other. Not in the “two people yelling at each other and not listening” way, but when a comment sparks reactions from multiple people, it’s important to know that. Now, as a facilitator, I’m going to slow things down and hear from people one at a time, but the spark that led to that was when everyone jumped in at once, and that’s how we know it’s important. It’s by definition harder to do that on video calls, and that’s one reason why it’s harder to make progress. There are other subtle ways people sense communication in person in a group setting as well. Obviously this tip comes with the caveat of “only if it’s safe to do so,” but in-person is best for the tough group conflicts.

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These three tips obviously go on top of all the content in our conflict course, which includes managing your own reactions, using different approaches to problem solving, and giving people feedback in a way that doesn’t make them defensive. You can take the course as an individual, or arrange for a group version for your whole team or staff. Learn more here.

Jamie Notter

Jamie is an author and growth strategist at PROPEL, where he helps leaders integrate culture, strategy, and execution to achieve breakthrough performance and impact. He brings twenty-five years of experience to his work designing culture-driven businesses, and has specialized along the way in areas like conflict resolution and generations. Jamie is also the co-author of three books—Humanize, When Millennials Take Over, and The Non-Obvious Guide to Employee Engagement—and holds a Master’s in conflict resolution from George Mason and a certificate in Organization Development from Georgetown, where he serves as adjunct faculty.
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