The COVID-19 lockdown changed that in a big way. Yes, many people transitioned to remote work — up to 42% of all employees across the U.S. found themselves working from home. But that only added new obstacles and complications around how people engage each other.
Unfortunately, work relationships can often become a source of contention or frustration, especially as a project moves through its life cycle. That’s why knowing how to deal with disagreements, or even conflicts, can really help a remote team remain successful.
Workplace Conflict Isn’t A New Thing
It may sound counterintuitive, but the good news is that workplace conflict isn’t new to the COVID-19 era. According to one study from 2019, 28% of surveyed people had left a job because of conflict in the workplace.
That’s certainly a disappointing number, because it suggests multiple failures among the leaders in those companies and industries. But one positive takeaway is that this widespread issue also means that experts have been investigating — and sharing resources on — this topic in a way that applies to any sort of collaborative endeavor.
As a project manager, you will most likely be in situations where people will come to you with complaints or grievances. They may present these things as problems with their own processes, schedules, or responsibilities.
But in many cases, that will involve pulling in another team member. One unfortunate byproduct of this is that when you share one person’s complaints to someone else, there’s always a possibility it might come across as an attack on their person, work ethic, etc.
(While any employee grievance should be taken seriously, there may be times when the complaint is a much more serious one. Respecting the team members’ privacy and maintaining a neutral stance are particularly important in those situations.)
No two workplace conflicts will be the same, but you should still take the same approach to how you deal with them. Whether you’re looking into scheduling complications or dealing with disagreements on a remote team, having a consistent approach will help streamline the process.
Strategies For Resolving Disagreements
An important place to start is by how you approach the people involved in the situation, whether it’s an outright “disagreement” or an issue that indirectly affects a second person. When you approach both parties involved — and you should approach them directly — start by focusing on the behaviors or obstacles that are the source of the conflict.
“Every time you say or do [insert grievance here]...” might seem like a natural way to start the conversation. But if you generalize your observation, it can seem more like an attack on their character rather than a question about a past situation. The more specific you can get, the more likely the person will be able to isolate the behavior or event in question.
You should also ask a lot of follow-up questions to make sure you understand each party’s grievances, and also figure out their perspective behind the conflict. The more information you can draw out of them, the more likely you’ll be able to find a comfortable solution...even if that means asking tough questions.
In fact, that’s one of the most effective ways to confront conflict in the workplace. Once you understand both sides of the disagreement, you’ll be able to frame the conversation in a way that presents common ground everyone can agree on. This provides a goal to work towards, and also reestablishes a sense of collaboration as both parties move towards that resolution.
Conflict Resolution For Remote Teams
As a project manager, you may already have most of the tools — or previous experience — you need to deal with a disagreement and help everyone involved move past it. But once you reach that stage, it’s not quite time to sit back and relax.
Once you’ve spoken to both parties and helped them understand the underlying obstacles, it’s time to step back from the meeting and come up with a plan. This is important for two reasons: It measures progress towards the planned resolution, and it also helps both parties avoid future or recurring issues.
Maybe you need to shift responsibilities for the people involved, or move deadlines, or even look into rotating team members. These “next steps” are even more important in remote work environments where interactions tend to feel more impersonal or isolating.
There are dozens of tactics on how to smooth out the rough edges of remote work. But perhaps the most effective is by utilizing the tools available to you.
Collaboration leads to communication, which in turn builds comfort between people. And team members who get along are much more willing to voice questions or concerns before they develop into conflicts. This is something that project managers can facilitate, regardless of whether people are working together in an office or across the world.
Because, like most things in life, preventative action is often a better route than reacting to problems as they arise.