Productivity, Tips 31 January 2020

These 5 strategies will help you handle disputes in remote teams

Highlights

It’s normal for teams to have disputes, but when you’re working remotely, sometimes things can escalate due to the lack of nonverbal cues (body language, facial expressions, eye contact) that help us read people and interpret situations.

Over text or email, direct questioning may come across as aggressive, messages can get lost in translation, or people may feel micro-managed or untrusted. And while conflict resolution training is becoming more common in large organizations, there’s little available in the new domain of remote work. Conflict often arises in already stressful situations, and the added complications of different time zones and work schedules, cultural differences, language barriers, and lack of personal connections can heighten the tension.

Most people hate confrontation – that’s natural. However as Liane Davey, a team effectiveness advisor and professional speaker says, “Avoiding an important conversation is a bad idea with an office mate and an even worse idea with a virtual teammate. Get the issues out in the open as quickly as possible before they sour your relationship and affect your ability to get the job done.”

So here are our five strategies to handling disputes in remote teams.

Take preventative action.

Stop conflict in it’s tracks by introducing techniques that will help build trust in your remote team. Tools such as weekly video calls, where remote team members have the chance to see each other can help build trust by creating personal connections. Use Icebreaker games at the start of each meeting to replicate the casual but important morning coffee chats that you simply don’t get when working remotely.

Similarly, encourage team members to use project tracking software to keep on top of tasks, track progress and allocate tasks, which will help reduce email track, and seemingly innocent ‘checking-in’ messages that can make people feel encroached on.

Communication is key

The old adage is true- communication is key! Asynchronous communication can seem excessive, but without synchronization, team members will miss out on key context, vision, and alignment. As bonding is key to getting team members to buy-into project goals, communication is the most valuable tool at their disposal.

Communication can’t be an afterthought and it needs to consider timezones, and project loads of all team members. Always stay on-topic, avoid getting personal, and any conflicts that arise need to be managed effectively to avoid derailing the project.

Provide space to voice concerns

By setting up regular catch-ups for remote employees to speak openly about any concerns they have, managers of remote teams can identify conflicts early on and work to resolve them before they become toxic. These individual progress meetings can give managers the chance to assess how team members are feeling, and members will feel like they’re being listened to and can speak in a safe place. It’s important to give both sides of any disagreement an opportunity to give their side of the story. While this may not be enough to resolve the issue, it can at least set the stage for opening up dialogue.

Use your voice for important chats

If a problem has been festering, it’s time to set up a phone call to talk through the issues. Book in a meeting with the team member (to give them time to gather their thoughts) and talk through your issues.

Stick with the known formula for resolving any conflict: provide very crisp and clear observations of the behaviour that’s bothering you. Then, talk about the way that behaviour impacted on you, and how it made YOU feel. Then, ask open-ended questions that opens up a dialogue to help you to understand one another’s perceptions.

The aim of this style of conversation is to develop a clear vision for how a similar situation could play out better next time. And remember to follow-up in writing to ensure you’re all clear about what’s been agreed upon.

Tip: To avoid miscommunication if you can’t clearly communicate the message in 15 lines of less on instant messaging, it’s time to pick up the phone and talk through it verbally.

Prioritize respect

It’s important to give equal respect to everyone, regardless of whether you’ve never met face-to-face, or they work in another timezone. Remote workers shouldn’t be treated any less than office colleagues, so thinking of them as equals will ensure you treat the fairly. Pleasant language, responding to emails, being available to help when needed and sharing knowledge are key to building strong relationships. On the other side, remote employees need to keep those same courtesies, and importantly stick to deadlines, meetings and be available when needed.

By dealing with conflicts in a professional and succinct manner, problems get solved faster, team members are happier and more engaged, productivity isn’t stalled, and feelings of trust become stronger creating a strong team where creativity can flourish.

Read more about how to communicate in remote teams and our best practices to follow when working with remote coworkers.

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