Keeping harmony among virtual teams

Written by Ian Wylie Thursday 25 November 2021
Conflict resolution is a key leadership trait under the ChMC competency framework that is rising in significance. Initial findings suggest that the risk of conflict through misunderstandings, differing environments or values is increased within teams work
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Hybrid, remote or distributed working is here to stay. A study from Ipsos for the World Economic Forum has suggested that two-thirds of the 12,500 employees it surveyed across 29 countries want employers to continue flexible work arrangements post-pandemic. UK building society Nationwide is allowing 13,000 office staff to choose where they work under its new “work anywhere” flexibility scheme. Deloitte says its employees are no longer required to be in the office for a set number of days or in specific locations. In September, PwC told 40,000 employees to work virtually and live anywhere they want in perpetuity.

Academic research has yet to evaluate fully this rapid transition in working practice, but early studies and anecdotal evidence suggest some caution: virtual teams don’t function in the same way as in-person teams, and without proper planning and ongoing support, distributed working can foster a culture of uncertainty and conflict.

Initial findings from a Maynooth University longitudinal study of UK employees shows that hybrid and remote workers report higher job insecurity, greater role conflict, work overload and lower task visibility.

A less academic, but still relevant study of 1,000 American workers suggests that these grievances can lead to serios consequences in a distributed and potentially fragile work environment. Eight out of 10 remote workers said they had experienced workplace conflict and two thirds had experienced conflict with their co-workers – 19% with their direct manager. The single biggest cause of conflict was reported as “lack of transparency/honesty about something important”, and after experiencing virtual conflict with a co-worker or a boss, 39% of respondents said they wanted to leave, or actually left their jobs due to the problem.

So how do you advise managers on diffusing conflicts, remotely, before it leads to low morale, poor productivity and talented team members walking out the (virtual) door?

Set communications standards to prevent conflicts

A new review by American academics of research on the challenges and barriers in virtual teams recommends the creation of common communication standards. Remote and hybrid working sees a rise of asynchronous communication, brief messages, emojis and abbreviations, which increases the chance of misunderstanding and conflict. Attitudes to using video and phone calls for direct communication can vary. Eszter Molnar Mills – a Chartered Fellow of CMI, director of Formium Development and team coach whose clients include Ford, Public Health England and King’s College London – recommends agreeing a “team communication charter” based on existing effective practices developed during remote working, that sets out expectations around internal response times and communication methods, and enables people to identify their preferences.

Promote more face time

The same literature review also concludes that it is imperative to facilitate as much face-to-face conversation as possible – not just for synchronous communication, but also asynchronous conversations. In an office-based environment, leaders often pick up on conflict through passive observation – of body language, or the tone and content of conversation. “When it comes to remote and hybrid working you'll need to be more proactive to identify where a problem is escalating,” warns Eszter. “Make use of one-to-one and team meetings to really drill down into relationships and team dynamics.” Don't go looking for conflict, but instead seek out cooperation, collaboration, communication and compassion - and follow up if these are missing.

Sometimes less is more

You can also use remote working to your advantage when trying to defuse conflict. “I’m not saying to ignore handling the conflict,” says Eszter, “but in the short-term, scheduling can help you lessen the impact on the participants – and the rest of the team.” Seeing less of each other may give people space to work through personality clash issues. “Ask for understanding and patience as new systems bed in,” adds Eszter. “Times of change can create uncertainty and stress which can lead to conflict – wherever possible, identify this and defuse it.”

More advice on managing conflict in distributed teams.

More information on conflict resolution within the context of the competency framework.

And here’s CMI’s brand new research into the key skills that employers are looking for among modern graduates.

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