Offices are a little like minestrone: they’re a strange mix that can come together to make something great, or when done wrong, something awful.
Remote teams are no different. There’s the same mix of personalities and working styles, and the same potential to be amazing — or not. The only difference is, distance creates new and different challenges.
As anyone who’s ever had to share a desk with an overly chatty coworker will know, distance can be a good thing. But it can also cause problems you otherwise wouldn’t experience working face-to-face. Disagreements can escalate quickly into conflicts before you know it.
To keep you and your remote team functioning as one big happy family (or delicious soup), here are some easy conflict management strategies for remote teams.
What’s the difference between a disagreement and a conflict?
A disagreement is a debate involving two or more differing viewpoints; emotions and tempers are in check. A conflict is when those differing viewpoints prevent respectful collaboration and compromise.
Why we need disagreements
French people love to say no, even if they fundamentally agree with you. Why? Because it gives them the option to change their mind later on. It also encourages you (the speaker) to open up and explain yourself further. They often use ‘non!’ throughout the conversation as a form of encouragement, meaning – please continue.
Productive discussions sometimes need disagreement and debate. Speaking up doesn’t mean you’re causing problems; it means you’re trying to move things forward and add to the conversation, which will benefit you, your team, and your company.
Why and how conflicts occur between remote workers
Nonverbal communication accounts for around 55% of the meaning of a message. When we’re talking to someone in person, we can hear their tone of voice, read their body language, and see their facial expressions. When we communicate via email or chat, we lose all of those helpful signals. This can cause problems, especially when there are differences in communication styles.
Even something as simple as ‘thanks’ can be taken in a multitude of different ways. I know I always prefer ‘thanks’ to be followed by a 😃 or an exclamation point. Anything else can sound (to me) unenthusiastic or at the worst, sarcastic. I’m also British, which means my cultural communication style tends to be less direct and peppered with needless apologies. Speaking to someone who is more to-the-point can initially feel jarring. As a remote worker, I’ve had to learn to be less sensitive and view emails in the best possible light.
This dissonance is even more pronounced when in the midst of a disagreement. It’s easy to view messages positively when the words are positive, but harder when the message is negative.
Disagreements can be encouraging with the right body language – but over email or chat, tone is hard to communicate. You can also adjust your message in real-time when you’re conversing in person. For example, if someone seems immediately upset, you can lighten the mood or soften your feedback in response. Over email, you have no choice but to cut to the chase regardless.
Why remote workers shy away from disagreement
When we work together in an office, we can stop by someone’s desk and have a chat (including a disagreement), and it’s usually done and dusted within the hour.
When we want to disagree with someone remotely, we usually have to write it down (via email or a team chat app), which takes extra effort and feels more permanent. There are also time differences to factor in, and when you’re voicing dissent, that inevitable wait before you receive a reply can feel nail-biting. It’s important to be aware of these differences, and not be put off if a disagreement needs to happen.
Most humans want to avoid disagreements because they don’t like conflict. But most problems also won’t go away on their own. We must be willing to have uncomfortable conversations sometimes, especially when conflict arises.
How to handle conflict in remote teams
1. Talk in real-time
If putting complaints in writing or dealing with time differences is putting you off, consider the alternatives. Communication between remote workers is often asynchronous, but it doesn’t have to be.
Schedule a phone call or, better yet, a video call so you can emulate an in-person conversation. That way, you can voice your opinion without worrying about the permanency of written communication or the delay of a time zone.
The immediacy of a real-time conversation also means you can address and resolve the conflict faster. The sooner issues are dealt with, the quicker everyone can move on, rather than letting emotions fester and resentments build.
2. Encourage disagreement
Let people know they’re in a safe, non-judgemental environment where disagreements aren’t just tolerated – they’re encouraged.
You can do this by giving people ample opportunity to voice their concerns in a way they’re comfortable doing so. Some people are happy to disagree on a team call, whereas others would prefer to do it in a one-on-one setting or anonymously via a survey – which may yield far more honest answers.
Do it early and often, so the feedback is constant and evolving. That way, issues will be addressed sooner rather than later, when it’s harder to turn things around. Another benefit to disagreeing often is that it feels like much less of a big deal for both the giver and the recipient.
3. Remember that no team is perfect
When you’re creating a conflict management strategy, it’s important to acknowledge different communication styles and the unique difficulties of working remotely.
Alongside taking advantage of the different tools and tech at your disposal, it’s a good idea to brush up on the 7 barriers to communication, which will help you talk to different types of people more effectively.
As a manager, remind new team members that it’s easy to misinterpret written information, and make awareness of this issue part of their onboarding. Being mindful of this is half the battle. You can also embrace playfulness and encourage the use of emojis and gifs when talking to each other. A smiley face here and there can help keep the tone light and encouraging.
It is essential for everyone’s growth that you learn to embrace disagreements and manage tense work situations from time to time. Being able to do these two things proves your capabilities as a colleague and as a leader.
You can do this by building an open and honest culture where speaking out is encouraged and rewarded. You can teach people how to effectively communicate with each other. And you can equip remote teams with different tools for communication – including chat apps and video conferencing software.
Disagreements are an inevitable part of working life. But with the right knowledge, attitude, and tools, you can prevent conflicts from developing, tame things when tempers do flare, and use these situations as a force for positive change.