Tips For Dealing with Virtual Workplace Conflict

How to Deal With Conflict in the Virtual Workplace

Digital communication for most of us takes place on workflow tools, chat applications, and over email. While some people may believe that this reduces friction on some level, it can actually bring new types of conflict that are unique to the virtual environment. 

Conflict might make some of us uncomfortable, but it’s a necessary part of the creative process. Underlying most projects is talent, expertise, and the desire to get things done correctly – and that can bring about disagreements among members of your team. 

Learning to manage digital conflict is a skill that starts with taking a top-down view of the issue. By understanding different types of disputes and digital communication strategies, you can learn to manage issues, produce better results on your projects, and contribute positively to the virtual workplace.

How Digital Workplace Conflict is Different

In a face-to-face disagreement, it might seem like strange behaviour to simply turn around, walk away, and ignore the situation. But that’s exactly what takes place when someone disregards a problem online and closes the screen. 

Disregarding conflict is simply not an option in the physical office because it can hang over both people like a dark cloud, making it difficult to ignore in the long term. The negative feelings keep coming back whenever the two people meet in the hall, the lunchroom, or at a meeting – and those feelings can grow with time. Taking steps to resolve that conflict in person can positively change both individuals because they can learn to compromise – and those skills last a lifetime.

By contrast, hitting the “X” button might be an online option, but it’s probably not the best decision and can cause significant long-term problems that include:

  • Increased tension among team members
  • Reduced communication with team members
  • Inability to complete projects to their full potential
  • Increased stress
  • Failure to learn conflict resolution skills
  • Feelings of isolation

Working in a digital environment has many benefits, however the above problems can eclipse those advantages and lead to serious long-term problems. That’s why it’s essential to learn how to spot the early signs of conflict and deal with them straight away.

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Causes of Digital Workplace Conflict

Work-life integWithout a doubt, the online environment brings about an entirely new set of challenges. How you deal with those issues depends significantly on the causes of conflict, such as:

1. Unclear communication

Not everyone is an expert communicator. In fact, many roles such as a software developer, IT professional, or graphic artist do not require proficient communication skills in the physical world – and that can have profound consequences for a virtual team. 

Unclear communication can include messages that lack sufficient details or contain grammar mistakes. Over time, this can lead to frustration among other team members that depend on clear communication to complete projects. 

Solution: Take a proactive stance and keep asking for clarification. Don’t be afraid of “overcommunicating” in this case, and be clear about what information you need. Alternatively, you may want to shift the mode of communication to a workflow tool that will send notifications for status updates in order to get a clear indication of what is going on.

2. Limited communication

Limited communication keeps everyone guessing and results in reduced transparency. Similar to the problem of unclear communication, it is common for some people in specific roles to have underdeveloped communication skills – and that can pose severe problems to the team.

Examples of limited communication include:

  • Not responding to messages on a workflow tool
  • Not providing confirmation of messages received
  • Failure to provide status updates on work completed
  • Completing work incorrectly due to insufficient consultation from other team members

In a physical office, it is easy enough to pop one’s head over the cubicle or knock on a door to get information. Not only is this easier, but it is also faster than sending a message online and waiting for a response. 

In contrast, limited communication in the digital workplace can lead to intense frustration over time. Besides stalling projects and disrupting workflows, it can make other team members feel underappreciated and ignored – and that can lead to a vicious cycle that makes the problem worse over time. 

Solution: First, understand that it is highly unlikely that the person is doing this on purpose! It’s also important to recognise that they may be busy and unable to respond to every comment and message. With that in mind, it’s imperative to communicate clearly what is expected and what consequences a lack of communication has for the team. Also, you may want to shift the type of communication to a workflow tool that organises communication more efficiently and provides status updates to increase transparency. 

3. Passive aggression

Passive-aggressive behavior refers to the practice of indirectly expressing negative emotions rather than addressing them in a straightforward manner. Examples include:

  • Purposefully procrastinating in order to negatively affect someone else’s work
  • Not participating in meetings or group sessions
  • Excluding people from conversations
  • Withholding important information

According to the experts at Psychology Today, passive-aggressive behaviour may be a psychological problem that requires counseling. Besides being frustrating, dealing with a passive-aggressive person can waste time and reduce productivity, so it may be best to refer the issue to your manager. 

4. Lack of ground rules

When you receive a message on a workflow tool, is there a rule that governs how long you should wait to reply? How about daily, weekly, or monthly check-ins? 

Solution: In order to manage expectations – and eliminate many of the above problems – managers can create a set of ground rules that facilitate communication across the team.

It’s essential to proceed with caution here! Humans aren’t robots and cannot always respond immediately. Besides, having all channels open with constant notifications can disrupt focus and reduce productivity. 

Instead, managers can set a rule such as “check and respond to all messages every 24 hours (or time frame of your choice) before signing off”. That way, everyone stays connected and all issues can be resolved in a timely manner. 

To Wrap Up

Learning to manage conflict in the workplace brings many benefits, such as improved productivity, enhanced collaboration, and better team relationships. The key is to recognize the conflict in its early stages and employ effective communication skills to resolve it.Interested in discovering more virtual communication styles? Learn more about the types of communicators in the workplace, how to deal with them, and what type matches closest your personality.

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