Experts share 10 tips for resolving conflict between remote co-workers

Virtual communication has its limits.

An illustration of a woman having a video call with her remote co-workers
J_art/Getty Images

Many of us have now been working from home for months, feeling disconnected from our friends, loved ones, and colleagues. This can cause frustration, especially among our co-workers.

Instead of walking to the next desk or down the hall to talk about projects, our only options now are email, chat, and video calls. These methods of communication can be effective, but they do have their limits. Misunderstandings can come easily, leading to potential conflicts.

To learn how to deal with these conflicts, Inverse reached out to conflict resolution experts Lauren Schieffer and Carol Bowser. They each share five tips below.

10. Remember this is not just working virtually.

“It is working virtually during a pandemic,” Bowser said. “The guidelines that the team might have used may no longer work in the virtual environment or with the reality that some team members are experiencing while working from home. Try and prompt discussions about what are reasonable team expectations. Things as simple as, ‘What did we do during this meeting that you found helpful?’ Start gathering input and begin crafting rituals around what is working.”

9. Communication is crucial.

“If your team is accustomed to having you down the hall where they can pop in to ask each other questions, the isolation from you and the rest of the group may be jarring for them,” Schieffer said. “Don’t be afraid of over-communicating. Check in with them consistently to ask, ‘What are your challenges? Do you need anything from me?’ The more they feel tapped into you and to each other, the more normalized they’ll feel in their remote working environment.”

8. The adage of “praise in public, counsel in private” holds true.

“Set a time for a call or a video call,” Bowser said. “Significant issues such as tension or unmet expectations around behaviors or performance escalate quickly via email. While it is difficult to ‘read the room’ in a virtual format, your facial expression and tone of voice can help you.”

7. Set expectations.

“Some may see working from home as a free ticket to work in their pajamas and slippers while munching on a bag of Cheetos with HGTV or the Velocity channel playing in the background,” Schieffer said. “While there is nothing specifically wrong with that, some of your staff may see others on the team as ‘slackers’ or not pulling their weight from home, which is a common source of conflict. It’s essential, therefore, to communicate your expectations of everyone’s focus and productivity consistently. Let them know what specific tasks and deadlines need to be met each day and praise them in public for their individual efforts.”

6. Avoid slamming someone out of the gate.

“You may not know all of the background or the process someone is using to make the decisions they did,” Bowser said. “Starting a conversation with ‘I am curious’ or ‘I was confused about’ sets the groundwork for a conversation. Make it a conversation versus a personal attack. With any circumstance, get clear on what is bugging you. What expectation do you have of your team member that is not being met? Often it comes down to trust, respect, and communication (or lack thereof). What are you looking for and does the person have the authority to do what you are asking for?”

5. Don’t try to read minds.

“When separated from body language and (often) eye contact, it is all too easy to fall into a trap of assuming intention,” Schieffer said. “Any tone of voice read through an email or instant message is infused entirely by the reader, not the sender. You may think you know what their intention was, what they were trying to say, or what they are thinking as they write something — you actually don’t. So, when there is a question of intention or message, get on the phone or on Zoom and ask.”

4. Don’t be a bully.

“Don’t be that guy or girl who uses the chat feature to mock, undermine, or make snarky comments in the chat box,” Bowser said. “This is stuff that bullies do. Remember, in some platforms when meetings are recorded, the host also gets a transcript of all the chats. It is not private. If you don’t like how the meeting is being facilitated, suggest a protocol that might make it more productive. Do this in the form of a suggestion and use ‘couching’ language such as ‘I have noticed that we seem to hear from some people more than others. I am wondering if we can reserve some time for others to share their points of view?’”

3. Address behaviors without attacking people.

“The longer the workforce stays remote, the easier it is to fall into a ‘social media mentality,’ thinking that what is said with your fingers is anonymous,” Schieffer said. “As with all face-to-face disagreements, it is vital to remember to address a behavior without attacking a person. It is also important to hold each other accountable when you fall short of that objective. Remember, at some point we will all be back in an office together, looking each other in the eye. If you would not say something face to face, it has no place being said with your fingers.”

2. Do some soul searching.

“If you are the subject of mean chats and know it, try and flip it,” Bowser said. “Look at the comments. What seems to be important to people? Are they pointing out patterns in your behavior they find annoying? Do they seem to value something different than what you do? Again, approach them with ‘I saw the comments or I heard you were frustrated about my approach to the project. From the comments, it seems that X is important to you. Did I get that right? So what would having more of X look like?’”

1. Remind yourself this is temporary and stay calm.

“This is a new situation for everyone, and uncertainty breeds anxiety,” Schieffer said. “Everyone should strive to be a calming voice amid the turmoil. Support people emotionally as well as in their work output. Make sure they know that we are all in this together, you support them, the company supports them, and, although it may last longer than initially expected, this is a temporary situation.”

Related Tags