Remote work conflict is inevitable, but you can employ several methods to relieve stress and resolve the issue.

Remote Work Conflict: An In-Depth Guide for Resolving Issues

When working remotely, conflicts and disagreements with co-workers, teams, or employees will arise just as when working in a brick-and-mortar office. However, without the benefit of face-to-face contact, rectifying these issues isn’t always easy. Use these communication strategies to prevent, manage, and resolve remote work conflict.

How to Deal With and Resolve Remote Work Conflict

If you plan to work remotely so you don’t have to deal with office conflicts and politics, think again. As long as you have contact with a boss, co-worker, or teammates, you will find conflict. A Myers-Briggs study of 5,000 workers in nine countries found that 85% of employees experience conflict to some degree. In addition, the study found that U.S. employees spend almost three hours a week on average dealing with conflict, costing the economy over $359 billion annually.

In fact, some researchers have found that disagreements among remote team members are more frequent and more difficult to resolve than among an onsite team.

“Conflict in virtual teams is more likely to be negative for performance and is more likely to escalate,” – Lindred Greer, professor of organizational behavior at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.

What Causes Remote Work Conflict?

Conflict in remote work situations begins for the same reasons that disagreements flare in a traditional office environment. These may include personality clashes, stress, overworking, and differences in values. However, there are a few causes and exacerbating factors that are more unique to remote environments.

1. Lack of information

Despite remote work collaboration platforms, the remote work environment can become isolating. This is due, in part, to a lack of easy and immediate access to your boss or co-workers. You can’t pop your head in their office to ask a quick question (and vice-versa). Also, in today’s dynamic business environment, remote workers may find out about changes after everyone onsite. One 2017 study by Zogby Analytics entitled Communication Trends Across Deskless Workforces in the U.S. found the most common obstacles to job efficiency for remote workers was a lack of information from management (38%) and timeliness of information (32%).

2. Impersonal communication

Even though most business communication channels are now less formal, technology has not made long-distance communication more personal. Remote communication channels such as email and texting are impersonal by nature, wiping out 93% of the signals used in face-to-face communication. Sometimes, the anonymity provided can lead to more critical or aggressive communication. In turn, this can quickly cause and escalate conflicts.

3. Uncertainty

Generally speaking, remote workers experience a higher level of uncertainty. Reasons for uncertainty include:

  • Concern about co-workers talking behind your back
  • The perception that changes are affecting your work without warning
  • Advocating for priorities

Uncertainty can lead to insecurity, which breeds anxiety. As a result, conflict may arise where uncertainty and anxiety are at their peak.

4. Taking things personally

If someone doesn’t feel wronged personally, any anger or irritation attributed to your co-worker’s behavior is usually too low to cause outright conflict. This is especially true when they are not sitting right next to you. However, according to Greer, when you combine a lack of information, impersonal communication, and uncertainty, you create a situation where it is easy for people to take quick offense.

What Damage Can Be Caused by Conflict?

Most people don’t like conflict. In fact, confrontation usually brings discomfort and emotional distress with it. Moreover, this can translate into a variety of negative effects in a remote workplace as well. Greer’s research into “conflict contagion” suggests the types of conflict found in remote work situations can be more emotionally charged, making it more likely to spread quickly. Thus, a variety of adverse outcomes are apparent.

  • Level 1: Job/team performance. One of the first things to suffer is the productivity of the remote worker or team. The stress produced by conflict may cause workers to feel uncertain as to how to proceed, and may also decrease motivation levels.
  • Level 2: Absenteeism. A conflict that is not addressed promptly will lead to employees checking out—both literally and figuratively—as a method to avoid or manage the conflict individually.
  • Level 3: Turnover. An ongoing lack of conflict management will naturally result in employees deciding to leave the situation entirely. Subsequently, this can spread to other employees if they are aware of the situation and perceive any unfairness associated with it.
  • Level 4: Unionization/Litigation. In extreme cases, conflict can spread and escalate to the point where participants see no other option other than seeking an external resolution to a problem. If the conflict has spread throughout an organization, employees may band together to seek union protection. Individuals may turn to the courts, or law enforcement, in the case of conflict that has escalated to criminal behavior such as sexual harassment.

How Can Remote Work Conflict Be Prevented?

While it may be impossible to prevent conflict in remote work entirely, you can employ several methods to mitigate and reduce the number and severity of conflicts, as well as the damage inflicted by conflict.

Advice for the Boss

  • Reach out regularly/be accessible. One key to conflict prevention is communicating with all employees on a regular basis, maintaining the same accessibility rules for both.
  • Clear expectations. As mentioned above, conflict thrives when there is uncertainty. Most importantly, you should monitor processes, procedures, and outcomes to prevent future misunderstandings.
  • Track productivity. Set clear expectations and follow up by monitoring employee progress. By tracking productivity and making information available to employees, disputes can be avoided. Furthermore, tracking productivity can keep your team on task.
  • Model strong communication skills. Employee communication behavior will depend on the behavior shown to your team by their immediate supervisors. Make sure to set a good example.

Advice for the Employee

  • Ask questions. If you are unsure about anything, ask questions to ensure clarity and head off potential issues down the line.
  • Ensure mutual agreement. In any communications, don’t assume the other person already knows or already agrees. Instead, request confirmation to prevent misunderstandings if any doubt exists.
  • Get ahead of issues. Most conflict is the result of festering issues that reach a breaking point. Don’t wait to resolve any problems with colleagues or supervisors.
  • Be open and polite. Due to the impersonal nature of remote communications, being polite is vital. Additionally, you should communicate openly and honestly to counteract conflict if someone feels left in the dark or deceived.

Advice for Teams

  • Set ground rules that equalize the playing field. No matter where team members are located, make sure that the same rules apply to all. This includes establishing clear and written expectations, policies, and procedures.
  • Celebrate wins. Build in opportunities for virtual teams to celebrate together and receive communal awards for their achievements. When applied correctly, this will promote team morale and mutual appreciation.
  • Regular group meetings. When a team is formed, meet in person if possible. This will establish the team members as actual people with feelings. In addition, meet as a team frequently on conference or video calls to promote a group mentality.
  • Online shared workspace. Establish a common workspace where team members can communicate quickly and informally. It is also useful for project-oriented teams to use online project tracking software.

How Can Remote Work Conflict Be Resolved? 

No matter how effective you become at preventing conflict, such conflict is still inevitable. In instances when it does occur, introduce a new set of communication skills to resolve conflict and mitigate any damage.

Advice for the Boss

  • Listen carefully and let the employee tell their story. Try to be as objective as possible and set aside any biases you may have.
  • Accurately identify the issues involved. Don’t assume you know what the problem is. Chances are, you don’t. Many employees will tend to skirt issues and avoid directly stating their problems.
  • Have clear, written rules regarding employee discipline. Above all, having written processes to follow that everyone is aware of will assist in reducing uncertainty regarding how conflict is resolved.

Advice for the Employee

  • Step away from the email or messaging app. When you feel your blood pressure rising and you are tempted to lash out defensively, stop! Step away from your computer, and take a break. Do not communicate when you are angry.
  • Address conflict as soon as possible. Don’t wait too long to settle a dispute. Burying issues doesn’t usually make them go away. Instead, they fester, grow, and spread.
  • Have a third party monitor your communications during a dispute. If you are unsure how your communication will be taken via email or text, try having an objective person review messages you write before you send. No matter how calm we think we are, our frustration can leak out unintentionally in our messages.
  • Try to find common ground for a solution. Many times, our conflicts are a result of misunderstandings or different approaches to a shared goal. Find out what you and your co-worker agree on and build from there.

Advice for Teams

  • Let all parties involved tell their story. If it’s a group problem, solve the issue as a group as well. Moreover, let all members of the team explain their side of the situation whether they are directly involved or not.
  • Identify gaps in knowledge or areas of uncertainty. Since conflict usually occurs around uncertainty, exploring, and resolving knowledge gaps can go a long way to resolving conflict.
  • Brainstorm solutions as a group. By harnessing the creativity of the team, you can solve any problems or issues that arise. As a result, your team will be stronger and more resilient in the long run.

The Upside of Conflict Resolution

Remember that conflict arises for a reason. Conflict is a red flag, identifying areas of your organization that aren’t working well. Although it may be uncomfortable and disruptive, conflict serves a purpose, so don’t miss the opportunity to improve. In order to move forward and accomplish organizational goals, you must address the underlying causes of conflict and practice conflict resolution.

Positive Outcomes of Remote Work Conflict Resolution

  • Improved clarity. Since conflict arises around uncertainty, resolving conflict almost always results in greater clarity surrounding job roles, team objectives, organizational missions, and much more.
  • Identify training needs. Sometimes conflict surrounds a lack of skills, either job skills or communication skills. Identifying and meeting any training needs that arise will result in improvements.
  • Greater understanding. Conflict will exacerbate differences between individuals. By recognizing these differences, you have an opportunity to increase tolerance and understanding of diverse viewpoints.
  • Stronger bonds. The process of overcoming conflict will create stronger bonds between those involved. Individuals feel that they have invested their time and energy in resolving the problem, and this naturally leads to greater commitment to the position, boss, or team.

In short, experiencing conflict in remote work may be unavoidable. However, there are many ways to identify, mitigate, and resolve interpersonal problems. By facing these issues head-on and working sincerely to develop a solution, everyone wins.


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