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  • Jilian Houghton

5 Types of Conflict Remote Workforces Face

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

As we move forward into our new workplace normal, many companies have begun their return to in-person work environments, while others permanently shift to a remote workforce. The age old adage-out of sight, out of mind-lures managers into the comforting thought that a remote workforce means less conflict or at least more time and space for coworkers to allow conflict to dissipate. In reality, managing this new remote workforce presents a unique challenge in handling conflict. With 80% of remote professionals having dealt with remote workplace conflict* there is now “a premium on the skills needed to prevent, manage and resolve conflict”.**

Remote work demands that much of our communication be funneled through written digital channels. We’ve all experienced the convenience of digital communication, but we’ve also witnessed the damage caused by FaceBook feuds and twitter wars. Without being able to read tone and body language it is more difficult to determine meaning across these various platforms.

No one is exempt from conflict in the workplace. In the study mentioned above, while there was no significant correlation between gender and conflict, at least 80% of all employees were involved in conflict. Not only was gender a non factor in conflict, but there was actually a positive correlation found between “education and degree of remote conflict involvement”.* As education increased so did conflict.

Let's examine what types of conflict your remote workforce is facing.

1. Generational Conflict

This seems natural, right? Coworkers will never see eye to eye 100% of the time, especially when those coworkers span a 30 year age gap. What makes this conflict unique is the new environment in which it is happening, or rather the separate environments in which it is happening. When polled about the reason for conflict with a colleague, 43% reported it was due to a lack of teamwork. Gen-X employees expressed frustration over a lack of teamwork virtually while Millennials didn't seem phased by it.* Managers can be proactive in building team trust and cohesion to help combat these feelings among employees.

2. Boss & Employee Conflict

Conflict is stressful enough, but add in the pressure of disagreeing with your boss and it will be virtually overwhelming. Of the remote professionals interviewed in a recent study, more than a third thought their bosses were too aggressive when texting.* In that same study, 20% of employees said they left the company due to the conflict and 21% reported never having even tried to resolve it. A conflict with such an intense power imbalance can be challenging and intimidating for the employee. And when you can't knock on the office door and ask to discuss it right away, an employee is left to sit at home and worry about what could happen next...will they be fired? You can imagine how quickly that spirals out of control. More than ever it is crucial for those in positions of leadership to be equipped with the skills to navigate conflict in a productive and effective way, and by various means. Employee turnover is one the most expensive losses companies experience each year.

3. App Aggression Conflict

This isn't a specific conflict between two people; this is the way everyone is dealing with conflict in the remote world. It is the aggression that occurs through work messaging apps, texting, and other digital forms of communication. When in the same environment, we can sense if someone received constructive criticism well, may be having an “off day”, or if an employee is overburdened with a new project. But remove that shared space and good intentions or sarcasm won’t translate via short messages, project timelines, and accountability emails. Not only can good intentions be misread, but hurtful and bullying communication can be read and reread when in digital form leading to further distress for the employee on the receiving end.

Many employees are not trained on how to navigate conflict virtually, so when conflict hits almost half of employees resorted to a work messaging app (46%), and 11% used a non-work messaging app, rather than a video call which could provide a better forum for resolving and navigating conflict.*

4. Internal Conflict

Face to face interaction is how we foster meaningful relationships and build essential trust. Without a foundation of trust and understanding amongst team members digital communication can be strained. When a 15 email thread or even a stream of messaging doesn't clearly get to the point in real time everyone descends into frustration. In-person work interactions give immediate feedback to those around us by our affirmative nonverbal communication. Ninety-three percent of communication is non-verbal, 55% is body language, and 38% is tone. A simple head nod, smile, or body weight shift gives a quick reassurance to the person that they're being supported or on the right track towards objectives and goals being discussed. When a team member is only communicating via digital means, unless a manager explicitly says that they approve of their efforts or congratulates them on a job well done, they may grapple with serious doubts as to their own abilities. Training managers and team members to use simple affirmative statements in emails and messaging can create feelings of trust that are essential in building productive teams.

5. Remote Environment Conflict

This conflict is one that employers and managers can't alleviate, but they can be understanding. Remote professionals get to enjoy a short commute and a remote environment of their choosing. But these advantages may come at a cost to their mental health. In a 2015 study, researchers found that having limited face to face interaction almost doubles a person's risk of having depression.*** Remote work can be very advantageous but it can also be the reason for low morale and a lack of unity amidst professionals. Creating a positive workplace culture is key in helping employees stay connected to one another and even looking out for each other.

Conflict is universal and unavoidable, but it doesn’t have to be relationship defining. If you are struggling to manage conflict in any of its forms we can help equip you and your team with the skills necessary to navigate conflict and create sustained positive change.

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