Managing virtual teams can be very rewarding, but it’s not without challenges.
If you’ve ever had the situation where conflict pops up and then seems to blow out of reasonable proportion, you’re not alone. If anything, the remote nature of virtual teams can make successfully managing conflict even more difficult than if it were to happen in person.
Even among the best teams, with amazing teamwork skills, some sort of conflict is bound to happen at some point. You might have sensed this - when was the last time you received an email or message where you felt the person was being terse or perhaps a bit rude?
As with any workplace conflict, a disagreement in virtual teams needs to be carefully managed. You have less “tools” at your disposal than if you were together in an office, so it’s important to nip it in the bud early.
Virtual teams may be more prone to conflictResearch shows that “conflict contagion” may be more common among virtual teams. Stanford Professor Lindred Greer, an expert in organizational behavior, has found that conflict in virtual teams is more likely to be negative for performance and more likely to escalate.
There are a few reasons why:
- Colleagues are more likely to take disagreements with their ideas personally when delivered from a distance.
- Context, nuance, body language, facial expressions, and anything else we use to take cues in face-to-face communication are missing from electronic communications.
- Back-and-forth communication can escalate more quickly virtually, as the communication is less personal. For some people, this means they feel less inhibited in what they say. Check out comments on controversial topics on Facebook, and you’ll see the keyboard warriors come out! The chances are they would temper their response in person…
Greer’s research shows that emotionally charged conflicts in virtual teams are more likely to spread quickly than other types of conflict. There just isn’t the history with the other person, or the ability to look them in the eye and understand exactly where they’re coming from.
The consequences of conflict like this can be wide-reaching. Company performance can take a dip, but you will often also see a toll taken on individual team members. People may become depressed, disengaged and generally lack enthusiasm for the job, leading them to quit. For the company this can be a double-whammy - performance suffers and you have to find and train new team members.
Managing conflict in virtual teams
No one wants performance or team morale to be impacted by conflict - here are some ways that you can effectively manage conflict in virtual teams:
1. Lead from the front
A study which looked at leadership and conflict among virtual project teams identified that task leadership is not enough. Successful leaders understand the needs of their team members and ensure that the work environment is adapted to increase the relationship and trust among the team.
Your own approach to any sort of disagreement is important as a model to your team. Whether it’s interpersonal or task conflict, it matters that they see you managing it in a professional way. The overall tone and culture of a business are set by its leaders - if you’re ever abrasive or disrespectful, expect that team members may do the same.
It may seem obvious, but avoiding things like making snarky remarks to people on your team about other team members is also very important. This is something that can act like a cancer in businesses, with team members backstabbing one another and creating an unpleasant atmosphere.
2. Have regular team meetings
If you can’t physically meet face-to-face, regular meetings via video messaging are the next best thing. High-performing virtual teams tend to make time for these sorts of meetings on a regular schedule.
These meetings are a great way to help with bonding among the team by allowing people to get to know each other better. You can learn about things such as how someone regularly talks, the way they think and operate, or what sort of sense of humor they have. This goes a long way to creating context around online communications.
As an added bonus, if your virtual team members are more familiar with one another, this can naturally foster their teamwork online. It’s important that people feel that they belong to a wider team and aren’t in their own little silo, despite any geographic distance.
3. Create the space and time for people to voice concerns
The nature of remote communication means that people can wallow up and let concerns fester over time. There could be something bugging a team member that is really impacting their day, and you may never know if you don’t create the space for them to come forward.
It’s important to be approachable with this sort of thing. If your usual response is to treat a concerned team member as a nuisance, they’re going to clam up going forward. Let team members know they can come to you at any time and how you prefer them to communicate with you.
Some companies use regular one-on-one meetings as a way to not only monitor individual performance but provide them with a forum for airing any concerns. It’s easy for any feuding team members to avoid one another in the remote environment, and this can mean that a disagreement grows into something much bigger than it really needs to be.
4. Have a shared workspace online
Constant and clear flow of communication should be encouraged, and it’s important that you have the right tools in place to make this as simple as possible. Different online means of communication can create better or worse outcomes.
For example, email inboxes tend to be full of “noise” and emails can easily get lost. Additionally, lengthy emails can be just too much for busy team members, or important pieces of information get lost in the crowd.
Tools such as Slack create great opportunities for people to communicate easily and keep conversations searchable. Studies show that successful online teams tend to utilize discussion boards, or similar, well.
This transparency can build trust and create a natural repository for ideas and discussion. A strategy many companies use is to have a specific “watercooler” type channel, where team members can talk about anything they usually would over a physical watercooler. This helps people to get to know each other better, which can be a good preventative measure for conflict.
5. Take time to celebrate
If the context of team members’ time together is always work, work, work, it’s more difficult for that important bonding to happen which helps them to build teamwork online. Whether it’s birthdays, the achievement of team goals, or just because it’s Friday, celebrating helps bring team members together in a less formal way.
You could host a virtual party, or “have coffee” together virtually. Celebrating helps to not only bring team members together, but keep them motivated.
Conflict is something that seems to brew in virtual teams. Communications can be misinterpreted and it’s difficult to get further context or nuance when you don’t have cues such as facial expressions, tone, or body language.
It’s important for business leaders to lead from the front and demonstrate exactly how they’d like teamwork and interpersonal communication to work. Don’t let anything fester, and be prepared to step in if it appears that task conflict is going to head down a more personal route.
Provide the systems that allow for simple, clear communication and let team members know what you expect. At the same time, be approachable and give them a forum to air any concerns. Managing a virtual team is no easy task, but you can keep conflict to a minimum by following these pointers.