How to Manage Conflict on a Remote Team

Last Updated Aug 9, 2011 6:04 PM EDT

When we manage remote teams, one of the advantages can be you don't have to deal with the day to day tensions that arise between co-workers. Of course, that's also the down side--we often don't know about conflict or problems until they erupt into major problems or blown deadlines. How does managing conflict differ when the team isn't together all the time?

Susan Shearouse is the owner of Framerworksforagreement.com and the author of "Conflict101: a Manager's Guide to Resolving Problems So Everyone Can Get Back to Work". In a recent interview on the Cranky Middle Manager Show podcast, we talked about how to handle conflict when people aren't nose to nose over a desk.

Is tension on remote teams any different than for co-located workers?
Does absence make the heart grow fonder or is it "out of sight out of mind? Because there's such a strong link between communication and physical presence, working remotely raises a couple of unique issues:

  • The potential for conflict increases: an unclear message is easily interpreted in different ways at different sites. Crucial time elapses before differences and disagreements are discovered
  • People have less opportunity for the informal communication that happens when they naturally interact with one another in a bricks and mortar workplace: There, it can be easy to bring up a small issue or concern when you are gathered standing at the coffee pot, clear up a misunderstanding, or sort through an approach that works for everybody. At a distance, people are making decisions and moving on. Others only find out later what was done, and are left wondering "What did he do THAT for?"
  • Going native: anthropologists and ambassadors have wrestled with this one for years. People sent out on a mission to work with "them" rubbing elbows with, eating dinner with, getting to know "them" soon begin to understand, agree with and affiliate with "them" more and more. If "them" is the client or the competition, that fraternity can easily slide into a relationship that's too close for comfort.
  • When virtual teams and dispersed workers rely on email and texting for communication, they wipe out 93% of the communication signals: Inserting a negative tone on someone's message can be so automatic we aren'tt even aware that it's happening. A simple "Could you get that report to me this afternoon?" can be heard as "just another carping email from the boss-- he has no clue that I am up to my eyeballs in a crisis here".
What are some things managers--and even individual coworkers--can do to address tension or conflict with remote teammates?
  1. 1. Step away from the email. When there's disagreement, pick up a phone. Or better yet, Skype or video-conference. Having eye contact, watching the non-verbal communication, hearing each other's tones of voice can tamp down negative assumptions.
  2. Set up a mutually agreeable time â€" when each of you can focus on the conversation â€" to talk it through. Turn off, or move away from distractions, electronic and otherwise. Listen first, to understand the differences before jumping to assumptions, conclusions or solutions.
  3. Think it through before you talk. Make notes, an outline of the points that are important to you so that they don't get lost.
  4. Raise issues or differences early, before they morph into bigger monsters. Don't sweep them under the rug thinking that they'll go away. They're likely to feed and breed in the dark.
As Shearouse points out, it's easy to ignore signals, especially if conflict avoidance is our (okay my) default position. Don't let bad feelings fester until they cause real and permanent damage to your team or project.

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Photo by flickr user amanky CC 2.0