By Kevin Eikenberry

When we think about remote or virtual teams, we may think about flexibility, freedom and perhaps even high productivity. And when people are working out and on their own, we typically think that interpersonal issues might not matter as much or happen as often.

Unfortunately, that isn’t always true.

When we do experience conflicts and problems, they are often harder to unravel and they can reach far, causing problems for everyone on the team. As a leader of a remote or virtual team, you must be aware of those challenges, and be ready to overcome or resolve issues when they do occur.

That is the purpose of this article, to give leaders who are experiencing such a situation (or are wondering what they would do if it happened) some very specific suggestions.

  • Set clear expectations. Expectations are important in every part of work performance, and when people are working remotely, they are especially important. Specific to conflict, your expectations should include how you want people to communicate and interact. Often people feel because they don’t work closely together or nearby that the relationships don’t matter as much (and the remote team members may feel like they are already alienated, making this a bigger challenge than anyone is acknowledging). Let people know what you expect in terms of communication and relationships. Then monitor how things are going in that arena.
  • Don’t delay. When small conflicts between virtual team members begin to arise, be aware. When communication quality or the frequency of it changes, take note. That doesn’t mean that you, as the leader, need to immediately intervene to solve the problem, but it does mean that you can reinforce the expectations and encourage people to work through the budding conflict. Remember that left alone, it likely won’t get better, especially when people can more easily ignore the situation because they don’t see each other every day.
  • Open the communication lines. As a leader, part of our job is to keep people interacting and communicating successfully. Especially when you start to notice challenges between remote team members, do what you can to open those lines of communication. Engage those parties more on team calls, ask them for more input, encourage team members to share more with each other. The more open the communication lines between team members and with you, the better off you will be, and the easier conflict will be to resolved.
  • Talk separately and (maybe) together. If a conflict is growing, you definitely want to talk to the individuals involved separately to begin with to clarify the business reasons to resolve the challenges. That isn’t singling people out; it is making the expectations for success work clearer. If the conflict has escalated to the point that the individuals can’t or won’t work to solve it themselves, then you will want to step in to help people move toward resolution.
  • Set the right goal. People will sometimes resist working through their conflicts because they think your goal is for people to like each other. Make sure your team members know your goal is for the conflict to be resolved, not for people to “like” each other. Of course if they end up liking each other that is a nice benefit, but make it clear that isn’t your goal. You will improve the likelihood that people will be open to working on the conflict when they understand what your goal really is.

The great news about this list is that some of the ideas can help reduce the chance that you have conflicts in the first place. Preventing a problem is always better than trying to solve it!


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