Managing a virtual team is both rewarding and challenging. Flexibility, decreased overhead costs, and freedom to work from anywhere in the world are certainly attractive advantages, but the lack of face-to-face interaction can make managing conflict difficult for virtual leaders.
In a virtual setting, words can be easily misconstrued and unresolved disputes between team members can significantly undermine a team’s ability to collaborate efficiently and productively. Conflict isn’t inherently a bad thing; in fact, it can actually strengthen virtual teamwork when leaders constructively manage conflict and reach a positive resolution.
What can be destructive, however, is the resentment and lack of unity that unresolved conflict creates among team members. No virtual team can avoid conflict entirely, nor should that be the goal. However, virtual leaders can strengthen their team’s ability to productively manage conflict by developing stronger interpersonal relationships.
Teams fortified by strong interpersonal relationships possess greater communication skills and trust—two of the most important components of successful virtual teamwork.
In colocated work environments, team members incidentally or purposefully form bonds. But in a virtual setting, it’s easy to become comfortable with isolation. Virtual leaders must intentionally create opportunities for people to interact across geographies and time zones. This, in turn, nurtures the development of the interpersonal relationships that are absolutely essential to building trust and social capital.
Managing Conflict in Virtual Teams: 5 Key Tips
1. Face-to-Face Meetings
Research points strongly to the idea that an initial face-to-face meeting or annual in-person meetings produce more successful virtual teams. OnPoint Consulting’s own findings show the highest-performing virtual teams make an effort to host a kick-off meeting with new team members within the first 90 days. If time and geography won’t allow it, teams can aim for a series of short virtual meetings to replicate what they would do in-person.
Although bringing the team together may require a substantial investment, the return is well worth it if the meeting results in highly functional virtual team members who trust one another to uphold their commitments. In planning these events, virtual leaders should also be sure to budget time for non-business-related socialization to provide an opportunity for team members to connect on a personal level.
When people have to interact directly, it’s more difficult for them to avoid disagreements or conflicts. Rather than complaining to others or simmering in isolation, team members are more likely to work out conflicts when they emerge, which prevents disputes from escalating into negative situations that are difficult to manage.
2. Create a Virtual Water Cooler
Setting up a virtual location where team members can access and share thoughts, ideas, pictures, business goals and achievements regardless of geographic location or time zone can go a long way toward building a sense of community among team members. This could be as simple as setting up a team Facebook page or a dedicated Slack channel where everyone is free to contribute.
This “virtual water cooler" shouldn’t be for business only. Encouraging team members to share hobbies, personal photos, and other work-appropriate content can nurture socialization and help them to get to know each other better. Over time, this familiarity and comfort creates a strong foundation for trust and personal investment between team members. Team members understand what values and goals motivate others, making them more likely to empathize (although not necessarily agree) with them when they don’t agree on something.
3. Find Reasons to Celebrate
Whether it’s a major performance milestone or a non-work event like a birthday, anniversary, or holiday, virtual teams should find reasons to celebrate together. Taking time out from everyday tasks to recognize someone or something is a great way to get virtual team members to interact with one another on friendly terms.
Hosting a virtual holiday party, for example, is a perfect way to kick off some team bonding, not just for the holidays but for the rest of the year as well. These events allow team members to interact with one another on different terms, creating the opportunity for new relationships and social bonds to form that can build a sense of trust and commitment to the team in the future. This sense of camaraderie makes it easier to communicate when managing conflict.
4. Partner Team Members Strategically
As virtual leaders assign team members to various projects, they should always consider which pairings can help strengthen relationships. It may be more convenient to assemble a team of people who are all in the same geographic location, but if the same people are always working together, leaders are missing opportunities to build the team as a whole.
Rather than allowing team members to constantly work in isolation or in established subteams, virtual leaders should think about how mixing up people can benefit the entire team. The frequent movement makes it less likely that factions or isolated groups will form, which in turn reduces the likelihood of unhealthy conflict.
Reshuffling partners not only strengthens bonds between team members, it also introduces people to fresh perspectives and exposes them to new skill sets. This can lead to innovative new ideas and approaches to problems.
5. Create Space and Time for Employees to Voice Concerns
Effective virtual leaders periodically schedule progress meetings with individual employees to assess how they feel about the state of the team. Many teams also set the expectation that anyone with concerns is welcome to schedule time with the team leader to discuss the issues. Remote environments make it very easy for team members to avoid one another, so a festering argument can grow into something larger than necessary.
Part of the challenge of managing conflict in the workplace is making sure that both sides have an opportunity to give their side of the story. While this may not be enough to resolve the issue, it can at least set the stage for a productive conversation about the basis of the disagreement. Equipped with this knowledge, virtual leaders can work on guiding both sides toward a resolution they find acceptable. By providing a forum for virtual employees to speak openly about any concerns they have, virtual leaders can identify conflicts early on and work to resolve them before they create a toxic environment for remote teamwork.
Managing conflict effectively and quickly is one of the most important skills a virtual leader must develop if they’re going to lead a successful virtual team. Conflict itself is not negative, but if it’s not managed effectively it can have a negative impact on a virtual team’s performance. By creating a positive team environment with strong relationships built upon trust and accountability, virtual leaders can create a space where team members are free to disagree and work through their differences in ways that ultimately benefit the team rather than bring it down.