Employees skiving, declining productivity and mental health issues are some areas employers must look into when they manage remote teams. Amid these, conflicts are inevitable, whether derived from work itself or an unintended result of a personal problem.
How can corporations buckle up on conflict management?
Before finding the solution, it is important to get to the root of the issue.
Why do conflicts occur more in virtual teams?
1. Lack of physical supervision
Remote workers cannot easily communicate workplace concerns to superiors as they would in the physical office, making them feel that their leads are out of touch with their needs. This can cause mental stress, especially when employees are unable to relay their struggles effectively. Conflict arises when employees no longer feel they need to work hard as they think they are not cared for.
The lack of physical supervision also encourages employees to share information and opinions virtually in ways they would not do so in the office environment. They may appear bolder and overlook workplace etiquette to get a point across that may not rub off well with others. Conflicts may come about as a result, and employees may be less encouraged to resolve conflicts, especially when they do not meet colleagues or supervisors face-to-face.
2. Work-style mismatch
While employees have different working styles, the office environment remains the same for all. Colleagues can see when their teammates are busy, in a meeting, or out for lunch. The work-from-home setting is completely different. First, employees have different home environments. These then impact the way they work. For instance, working parents may not be able to hold meetings at certain times of the day as their toddlers may be asleep. Others can only complete work at night due to daily distractions at home, causing delays in work submission. Since employees have their own struggles to manage, conflicts can occur when common ground cannot be met on task-related matters.
3. Mental health
For some, being present around colleagues motivates them throughout the day. Being physically present to interact with colleagues provides a sense of connectedness, which lays the foundation for a positive work environment. Working remotely strips them off this support system. This can negatively impact mental health. Employees feel lonely, withdrawn and less willing to be productive. This causes problems in work delivery, especially when deadlines are not being met, leading to workplace disputes.
Work overload and the inability to draw the line between work and home can also cause stress and anxiety. This has led to what we know today as the ‘WFH burnout. Employees experiencing such mental stress may experience meltdowns unbeknownst to others who may instead perceive their behaviour as aggressive. Moreover, fatigue — a result of burnout — may cause employees to take more medical leave, hampering work and creating tensions within teams.
How employers can manage & resolve conflicts remotely?
1. Keep in touch
Continuous communication gives employees a sense that the company is looking out for them even as they work from home. These can be in the form of regular huddles, within and between teams. Be mindful of the number of times these huddles occur – too much can interfere in employees’ work schedules and cause more stress. It is also important to make a distinction between work and personal communications. The best way is to use a separate platform for work chats, like employees do at Singapore-based events company Unearthed Productions: Slack is used for all work communications, leaving WhatsApp for casual conversations.
2. Stay open to feedback
You can provide a sense of belonging to employees by involving them in the organisation’s progress. This means allowing an open channel for feedback, from tasks-related matters to wellness. This ensures that employees’ voices are always heard. However, such a channel will not be effective if constant communication is not set in place. Employees must be willing to provide feedback for the betterment of the company and its people, and not view the feedback channel as a formality.
3. Provide mental health support
Ensuring that employees have support to leverage when they do not feel their best is crucial to protecting their mental health. Managers must educate themselves on mental health so they can spot the tell-tale signs among their team members, speak to them and make necessary arrangements before the issue aggravates. At Aviva Asia, for instance, managers attend virtual classes on mental health to do just that. Over at hotel management company RedDoorz, employees, hotel partners and staff have a mental health support hotline through which they can set up one-to-one counselling sessions with counsellors and psychologists.