The thing about inventing the wheel or discovering fire, is that you are in uncharted territory when it comes to your first flat tire or when a spark starts a wildfire.
The COVID-19 pandemic ushered in an entirely new remote workplace culture, and it appears that it is not going away, even as the vaccine rate increases around the world, as many companies are embracing a hybrid model going forward that will feature some WFH (work from home) component.
This sea change has brought about many obstacles – that haze you see wafting across corporate America could just be smoke from giant bonfires of employee handbooks as the rules are being re-written on the fly.
One of the challenges that HR is confronted with is how to handle conflicts in a remote work environment.
In the age of Zoom/Slack conflicts often can not be “taken offline” and settled face-to-face, and companies must prevent digital sparks from turning into workplace wildfires.
"Workplace conflicts, which have always been around, are increasing in a remote world because people who can no longer physically see each other when sharing information or solving problems are missing the pieces of data that come from body language, observation and casual banter," Beth Wonson, a workplace conflict specialist at Beth Wonson & Co., a corporate consulting firm in Carmichael, Calif, told SHRM in an April 2021 article.
Slack Era: When Employees (Literally!) Can Not “See Eye to Eye”
Now that remote work has been a foundation during the pandemic for more than a year, some data is emerging on digital conflicts during the “Slack era”.
MyPerfrectResume.com released the results of a study in February 2021 after they asked 1,000 U.S. workers about remote conflicts. The questions they posed:
- Who is experiencing conflict while working from home.
- Who workers are exchanging blows with.
- What the source of the conflict was.
- If there were punishments for those virtual spats.
- And if there were any severe consequences from it.
The answers were both illuminating and troubling, with some 80 percent reporting they had experienced a remote workplace conflict.
Even with the prevalence of Zoom meetings, it seems, colleagues in a remote work setting are having problems “seeing eye-to-eye”.
There is no overwhelming subject that causes these remote conflicts with one-third citing “lack of teamwork”; one-third citing “stress about work”; and another third citing “rude behavior”.
Among the findings by MyPerfectResume.com:
- Remote work conflicts are between co-worker’s 65 percent of the time; with a “boss” 19 percent; external manager 11 percent; and employees working at another company 5 percent.
- Almost half (46 percent) of the conflicts take place on the company’s communication platform. 43 percent had the conflict in a video meeting or one-to-one chat.
- Newer hires were more likely to get into disagreements on the company communications platform than experienced employees.
Of course, it is not just new hires adjusting to new ways of communicating as the survey found that 42 percent of employees had experienced a remote work conflict with their supervisor.
A teaching point for HR going forward with managers and remote work communication is that:
- 36 percent of employees with conflicts with their boss cited aggressive texts.
- 69 percent of employees with conflicts with their boss said they were “cursed at” in messages.
Best Practices for Handling Conflicts in a Remote Work World
Brian O’Connell in the SHRM article “Settling Conflicts in a Remote-Work World” presents some best practices for handling these remote work conflicts.
“With team members working in 6an environment where in-person interaction may not be possible, managers must hone their communication and team-building skills to diffuse remote-workplace conflicts,” O’Connell writes.
He recommends four steps to prevent remote work conflicts from derailing your team’s workflow:
- Get All the Facts: A rush to judgement can only exacerbate the conflict. Managers should gather all the facts, contacting those involved in a one-to-one meeting and confidentially getting their complete side of the story.
- Implement Your Plan: Your company should have a conflict resolution plan in place, and it should be consulted. It is important that both sides in a grievance understand the process and feel like they are being treated fairly and with respect. Many companies have monthly or even weekly one-on-one meeting with employees which can lay a foundation for identifying conflicts before they erupt.
- Communicate, Communicate, Communicate! During the pandemic it has been said many times that companies and managers can not “over communicate” as the new remote work environment requires a new level of communication different than the in-office norms. Many conflicts stem from simple “crossed wires” along new digital communication channels. Managers can quickly settle a conflict by clear communication with their reports.
- Accept the New Reality: Trying to pretend that the remote workplace is “business as usual” with no unique challenges is sure to frustrate employees and lead to more conflicts. Managers should acknowledge to their teams that there are specific obstacles to the WFH or hybrid models and encourage them to speak up about issues before they become conflicts.
“Unresolved workplace conflict can have a serious impact on the mental health and wellbeing of those involved. It can also have significant business costs as it affects the wider team, reduces productivity and takes up considerable time, energy and resources,” writes Anna Shields in Personnel Today. “With so many employees now ‘out of sight’, there is a real risk that conflict goes unnoticed or is avoided until it grows to an unmanageable level.”
Contact Employer Flexible today to find out about our clear HR solutions for your company, including how to handle remote work conflicts.