It’s usually pretty easy to tell when an employee reaches a boiling point. The warning signs are subtle but clear; as you discuss a contentious policy change or challenging assignment, you can see them start to shift in their seat and glance away. Their expression hardens, arms cross, and tension knots their shoulders. Even before you finish talking, you know that you’ll need to clear the air before either of you return to your daily work.
Contentious conversations in the workplace are often stressful, difficult, and entirely necessary. Chats like these allow leaders to resolve conflicts before they derail productivity or poison office morale.
They also don’t translate well to a virtual environment; a thousand faulty assumptions can be made on the back of a too-brusque text or unanswered Slack message. When you lead remotely, you may not even realize that conflict lurks in the unspoken subtext of a quick email or call.
Let’s recontextualize the above conversation into a virtual format. Rather than sitting across a table, you and your direct report are discussing that same contentious policy change over Skype. You deliver your speech in a block of text; after a few minutes, you see them begin to type, stop, and type again. After a solid two minutes of this staccato typing, you see three words appear: Okay, got it.
You’re torn. Should you take the employee’s statement at face value? Are they upset by the policy change, but don’t know how to articulate their concerns via text? Will that resentment simmer and build into a problem down the road? It feels awkward to follow up on such a conclusive statement. Uncertain, you click out of the chat — and just as you feared, frustration begins to percolate on your team.
The challenges that arise when leaders don’t take the time and effort to adapt their conflict resolution strategies to a fully-remote environment are evident — and, given the current need for social distancing, likely to become more common.
According to a recent joint research survey conducted by CNBC and Change Research, roughly 42 percent of surveyed Americans are currently working from home. The pandemic-prompted, mass migration towards remote work has sparked a wave of conversation around what leaders can do to maintain team morale and productivity across digital channels.
But relatively few people talk about what leaders should do when low morale and resentment are already through the (digital) door. While it’s always good to strive for high morale, moments of communication breakdown and conflict are inevitable. This fact was established by CPP Global, the company that created the Myers-Briggs personality test, as early as 2008.
According to a CPP report released that year on workplace conflict, 85 percent of surveyed employees say that they need to deal with conflict to some degree, and 29 percent claim that they need to do so frequently. Poorly-managed quarrels have consequences; researchers note that 25 percent of employees have seen conflict result in sickness or absence, while 9 percent cited it as the cause of a project failure.
Leaders must address conflict immediately and capably before it results in a larger problem. Unfortunately, this does not always occur. The report found that while over half (54 percent) of surveyed employees think that managers could manage disputes better if they dealt with underlying tensions early, only 44 percent of all managers polled said that they had received training in how to navigate workplace conflict.
Given this data, it seems reasonable to assume that even fewer know how to conduct conflict resolution over digital channels. To risk stating the obvious: virtual and in-person communication are dramatically different. Face-to-face meetings provide a wealth of subtextual information conveyed by tone, body language, and subtle cues; thus, it’s relatively easy to identify and address tensions when they arise. With virtual communication, however, that is not the case.
“With so many employees now ‘out of sight,’ there is a real risk that conflict goes unnoticed or is avoided until it grows to an unmanageable level,” HR expert Anna Shields recently wrote for Personnel Today.
Paul Axtell, a corporate trainer and author, put the matter another way when providing comments to the Washington Post: “In-person meetings provide a sense of intimacy, connection, and empathy that is difficult to replicate via video. It’s much easier to ask for attentive listening and presence, which creates the psychological safety that people need to sense in order to engage and participate fully.”
But even as the difficulties have grown, so too has the need for conflict resolution. Research has demonstrated that working remotely can prompt employees to work longer hours and blur the lines between their personal and working lives. As one writer for Fortune concluded on our mass remote working reality, “Add new concerns over COVID-19, a struggling economy, homeschooling children, and shaky job security, and remote workers may find themselves mired in fear and anxiety, creating fertile ground for conflict.”
Businesses need to train their team leaders to resolve conflict over digital channels now. Otherwise, they could face a dangerous decline in morale and a massive loss of productivity as COVID-19 stress combines with preexisting workplace tensions.
But how, exactly, should they go about doing so? While each leader will likely have their own approach, the core of their strategy should boil down to overcommunication.
“It’s better to add more context and be more careful with language than you might ordinarily be,” mediation expert Gina M. Weatherup explains in an article for Fortune. “Instead of diving right in, use salutations in email and texts. Even if you’re not a fan of emojis, or think they’re silly, they can be useful and effective in adding tone and context […] Discuss the reasoning behind such recaps, and what could seem condescending becomes a stopgap.”
Leaders should set a standard of overcommunication that eliminates resentment-causing uncertainty and supersedes awkwardness. Rather than clicking out of a chat when a direct report replies with a clipped message, leaders should send a follow-up message — or, for maximum relatability, set up a videoconference — to ensure that the employee has the opportunity to air their unspoken concerns and receive support.
Team managers should set up training sessions to establish expectations for workplace communications. They should also provide specific notes on the importance of adding context, demonstrating texting “tone,” and being aware of how certain wording choices may come off to others. Holding virtual workshops on active listening and thoughtful communication practices may also be worth considering.
At the end of the day, though, the specific strategies you deploy don’t matter as much as the effort you make to ensure that every employee feels heard and valued. Don’t get complacent and assume that your communications are going smoothly — if you do, you may inadvertently allow hidden tensions to derail otherwise-promising projects.