Conflict occurs in all teams, and it’s sometimes healthy, because it creates opportunities to share valuable feedback and constructive criticism. But it also creates problems, so if you can prevent the conflict in the first place, that’s usually better than tackling it when it occurs.
This is especially important now, when you might find yourself suddenly managing a team that’s working from home. The team dynamics are very different than when you’re all working in an office, so you might not know how to prevent or manage conflicts that occur in this kind of work environment.
Here are six ways to create a culture that minimises conflict in teams that are “remote”.
1. Avoid rivalry.
Though some friendly competition is healthy, avoid creating an “us vs. them” mentality between different parts of your team, because it erodes trust and rapport.
Be especially mindful if you know there are already potentially divisive groups in your team. For example, if you’re a senior manager overseeing different departments, the department heads might naturally fight to protect their own turf. Or if you manage a team with some customer-facing people and some internal people, there might be some implicit rivalry between these groups.
To overcome the perceived disparity, actively find opportunities for everybody. For example, give everybody the chance to chair meetings or lead presentations.
2. Create identity.
Ensure each team member understands how their work contributes to the common goals of the team, and how those team goals fit into the bigger picture of the organisation’s mission. If you already had a strong team culture when working in the office, that sense of identity should already be part of the team. But don’t assume it, and don’t assume everybody is aware of it. Look for opportunities to highlight and emphasise this sense of identity, so you can keep the team close, even when they are physically remote.
3. Share context.
Help everybody understand everybody else’s work environment. That doesn’t mean you need to force everybody to do a virtual tour of their messy home! But it doesn’t hurt for them to quickly show their workplace to the rest of the team. Some might have a separate room, others are working from the kitchen table; some have natural light, others are in a closed room; some have family and pets around, others work alone; some are trying to supervise their children learning from home, others aren’t; and so on.
It’s useful to understand each person’s work environment, because you can then visualise them reading your email, responding to an instant message, working independently on a piece of work, and so on.
4. Communicate informally.
In addition to your formal communication channels for doing the work, encourage your team members to communicate informally.
In an office, you bump into each other in the corridor, or you can pop into someone’s office or cubicle and chat. With your remote team, you need to engineer such opportunities. For example, if you have a short online meeting at the start of each day, allow five minutes at the start of the meeting for everybody to share how they feel.
But don’t limit this to public communication. Encourage people to communicate privately as well, especially when it comes to sensitive issues that might otherwise cause a conflict. Provide – and encourage – communication channels in your remote team to support open communication, so team members can share their concerns, be heard, and build trust.
5. Keep your ‘door’ open.
A good leader takes the approach that their door is always open. Provide a virtual ‘door’ people can use to communicate with you. For instance, they could pick up the phone and call you, set up a video conference call with you, or start an online meeting to discuss issues before they get out of hand.
Maintain confidentiality when working through issues with your people. You obviously need to protect their privacy, and people feel more confident discussing sensitive issues in private.
6. Lead by example.
Finally, model the behaviours you expect of others in your team. This is especially important with your remote team, where everybody can scrutinise and interpret – or misinterpret – every word you type, every facial expression on a video call, and every vocal tone.
If you need to criticise, make it constructive criticism, and do it in private. In other words, “Praise in public, criticise in private”.
Encourage people to be open – even in criticising you (in private, of course). Don’t punish people for raising sensitive issues; thank them instead.
If you make a mistake, apologise – privately or in public, whichever is appropriate. If you acknowledge your mistakes and apologise sincerely, other people will feel comfortable doing the same thing.
How will you prevent conflict in your team?
These six ideas will help you act proactively to prevent conflict when you’re managing a remote team. They won’t let you prevent every conflict, but that’s not your goal anyway. Just keep in mind that prevention is better than cure, so take action now to put these ideas into place.