Resolving Online Conflict: Dispute Resolution for Remote Work Environments
Remote work environments are here to stay. Just like traditional workers, remote workers experience conflicts, often more heated or more prolonged due to the isolation, asynchrony, and other aspects of the remote work environment. According to a My Perfect Resume poll, more than 8 in 10 remote workers have experienced workplace conflict. That’s why dispute resolution in remote work environments is just as important as it is in traditional workspaces, if not more so.
What can be done to reduce misunderstandings and conflicts in remote work environments? Business managers, team leaders, and employees in general would do well to develop an understanding of:
- Common workplace conflicts
- Conflict resolution methods
- Challenges of remote work dispute resolution
- Frameworks for collaborative work environments
Common Workplace Conflict Types
Conflict erupts in all organizations, remotely and in person. Certain conflicts are common across the board — do these touchy situations sound familiar? An employee feels consistently undermined by a colleague and lashes out. Another employee disagrees with a higher-up about a deadline. A team of middle managers come to a stalemate with each other over which projects to prioritize.
In many cases, respect and patience among all parties can mitigate disagreements and misunderstandings before they escalate into conflicts that require formal dispute resolution. However, organizations should expect and prepare for conflict and be ready to resolve it. Recognizing the common types of conflicts at work is a great place to start.
The most common workplace conflicts, according to Harvard Law School, can be categorized as task conflicts, relationship conflicts, and value conflicts.
A task conflict is a workplace disagreement over the best way to complete assigned tasks. Consider these examples of types of task conflicts that can occur in the workplace:
- Labor division. Employees disagree about how to best assign subtasks.
- Resource allocation. Employees disagree over the way a team distributes finite resources.
- Expectation management. Task conflicts emerge when employees are unclear on what’s expected of them. This can lead to employees performing tasks incorrectly, which in turn can cause friction among team members.
- Factual interpretation. One employee can interpret the same set of facts differently from the next. When team members complete project tasks based on differing interpretations of the facts, mix-ups and miscommunications may result, sparking conflict.
Co-workers can clash over personal style, matters of taste, and even conflict-resolution approaches. Relationship conflict refers to negative interactions among employees.
Whether an employee has to deal with co-workers who repeatedly make annoying jokes, or bosses who are a little too fond of hearing themselves talk, relationship conflicts can sow tension and frustration among employees. The result? Employees may have a shorter fuse when interacting with co-workers, becoming less productive and collaborative and more confrontational.
Value conflicts occur when performance suffers because of differences in identity and priorities. Some areas in which teams may experience value conflict include:
- Ethics. Divergent ethical principles can lead to value conflicts. Some common ethical values are fairness, loyalty, integrity, and honesty.
- Faith. Employees may clash over different religious beliefs.
- Politics. Tensions in the workplace may emerge from differences in political stances.
- Social norms. Workplace social norms, such as punctuality, meeting deadlines on time or what constitutes proper professional attire, can lead to value conflicts.
- Company mission. Conflicts can emerge regarding the best way to actualize an organization’s mission statement. For example, if a company’s mission statement indicates it values efficiency and quality, leaders may disagree about how to best achieve those two seemingly conflicting goals.
Causes of Workplace Conflicts
The Society for Human Resources provides several examples of sources of workplace conflict. Consider the following common causes of conflicts at work.
Task conflicts often result from:
- Conflicting job duties, such as tasking a nonsupervisory employee to supervise a co-worker
- Inadequate communication, such as failing to notify all members of a team when changes take place
- Large-scale, systemic changes, such as industrywide workforce slowdowns
- Mismanagement during an organizational transition, such as during a merger or acquisition
- Resource scarcity, perceived or actual, such as inadequate office space
- Poorly defined workplace roles, such as underdefined job descriptions
Relationship conflicts may result from:
- Personality clashes, such as a soft-spoken employee being perceived as unfriendly or an extroverted one being perceived as insensitive
- Differences in work methods or goals, such as methodical approaches versus rapid development approaches
Value conflicts may emerge because of:
- Unmet needs in the workplace, such as workers feeling obligated to take on unmanageable caseloads
- Ambiguous problems with no clear answer, which can be especially pressing when a company seeks to innovate or disrupt an existing market
What is the overall goal of conflict management? The main goal of conflict management is to anticipate and address the causes of workplace conflicts before they hurt overall employee satisfaction and productivity.
Conflicts in Remote Work Environments
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, people in over one-third of households reported working from home more often during the pandemic than they did before the pandemic (between August and January of 2020). That surge in remote work has stirred an interest in studying dispute resolution for remote work environments.
In a large-scale survey of 1,001 participants, My Perfect Resume revealed several findings about the unique experiences remote workers face in the U.S.
Sources of Remote Conflict
According to the survey, the five main sources of remote work conflict were:
- Work stress (25%)
- Perceived lack of teamwork (25%)
- Co-worker’s rude behavior (22%)
- Lack of transparency (18%)
- Clash of values (9%)
It’s easy to guess why remote workers are stressed. Many people who work remotely do their jobs in environments filled with distractions they would usually avoid in an office. Remote workers share workspaces with partners, provide child care, and manage other domestic disruptions.
Moreover, scheduling can be challenging in remote settings. Remote workers often work with team members geographically distant from them. Time zone differences can mean meeting at odd hours, which can disrupt employees’ work-life balance.
Other significant survey findings suggest that a perceived lack of teamwork may arise from miscommunications over remote messaging platforms and texts. In a traditional office setting, many disputes can be resolved with a quick in-person meeting in which each party makes their own position clear, but remote workers don’t have that option. Of the 1,001 remote workers surveyed, 46% clashed with others via work messaging apps (such as Slack). Over 35% felt their bosses were too aggressive in texts and messaging apps.
All in all, chronic distractions, a lack of work-life balance, and perceived aggressive communications from co-workers contribute to remote conflicts.
Main Causes of Remote Conflict
According to this same survey, the main causes of remote conflicts were:
- Unintentionally coming across as short/frustrated/aggressive in text messages and apps (40%)
- Feeling disconnected from the organization (29%)
- Co-workers being “bolder” online than when communicating face to face (22%)
- Employees failing to respond to each other’s messages (10%)
Effects of Remote Conflict: Employee Attrition
Having to endure virtual conflicts takes a toll on remote employees. After experiencing a conflict, 39% of remote workers said they wanted to leave their jobs or actually did leave. This suggests that leaders need to learn methods of conflict resolution to create a more collaborative work environment for remote workers — or face disruptive employee turnover.
One reason remote workers leave companies over conflicts is because they can afford to do so. The Pew Research Center finds that a clear class divide exists between workers who can work remotely and those who cannot. A majority of high-income workers (those who make over $30.61 per hour) report the ability to work from home, whereas most low- and middle-income workers do not. This means that remote workers may have the financial security to leave their job over a conflict sooner than traditional workers.
To hire and retain quality remote workers, employers should focus efforts on conflict management, so that workers who experience conflict will be encouraged to stay.
Why Conflict Management Matters
Effective conflict management is crucial for all organizations. Although some forms of conflict may be inevitable, acknowledging the risks of unmanaged conflict in the workplace is important.
Fallout from Unresolved Conflict
Most people avoid conflict. When conflicts arise in the workplace and go unresolved, damage results. Some results of unresolved conflict at work include:
- Poor team performance. Remote workers suffer productivity losses caused by unresolved conflicts. Conflicts may produce additional stressors that decrease motivation, elevate tensions among employees, and reduce helpful communication.
- Absenteeism. When employees think that conflicts cannot be resolved, or will not be resolved, they may check out. Employees who experience unresolved conflict, then, may take less ownership of their work, and may be less inclined to collaborate on future projects.
- Turnover. Ongoing conflicts typically lead to employees quitting. This not only leaves teams short-staffed but also lowers employee morale.
- Litigation. Unresolved conflicts can escalate to the point that only an external source can resolve the problem. Employees or former employees may take to the courts or law enforcement to settle conflict escalations that could have been avoided with proper dispute resolution.
Conflict Resolution Strategies
Dispute resolution for remote workers involves both responding to conflicts well and preventing conflicts before they happen.
Preventing Remote Work Conflicts
To create effective practices, organizations must consider what the overall goal of conflict management is. Generally, the best goal is to reduce the number and severity of conflicts at work in the first place.
Designing a collaborative work environment involves getting buy-in from managers and employees.
For managers, steps to preventing remote work conflicts often include:
- Help the team align. When employees disagree because of differing values or priorities, naming the issue helps. So does assisting employees in finding common ground, such as a shared goal or value. This can help lessen the negative impacts of a conflict and align a team.
- Build trust. Creating an environment in which managers are accessible, approachable, and open with their subordinates can give all workers a sense of trust and ease. This can reduce communication errors, a major source of remote working conflicts.
- Set clear expectations. Employees are uneasy and often clash when roles and expectations are unclear. As a manager, setting clear expectations can empower employees and reduce conflicts.
- Track productivity transparently. In addition to setting clear expectations, monitoring progress toward goals — and making that progress visible to employees — can help teams stay on task.
For employees, steps to preventing remote work conflict may include:
- Ask questions. When employees feel free to ask questions, they help foster an environment where everyone is on the same page.
- Request clarification. If an expectation seems unclear, request more information.
- Express burnout concerns. Burnout is something any worker can experience. By being open and honest with bosses or co-workers about the potential for burnout, employees may be able to avoid tensions that result in future conflict.
- Give co-workers the benefit of the doubt. Texts and workplace app messages can come across as cold or abrasive even when they aren’t intended to be so. By interpreting these messages charitably and assuming good intent, employees can nip potential conflicts in the bud.
Methods of Conflict Resolution in Remote Work Environments
Despite everyone’s best efforts, workplace conflict is inevitable. That’s where dispute resolution strategies come in. Steps to take to resolve conflict at work include
- Address the conflict as soon as possible. Unaddressed conflicts among employees will undermine confidence and trust, leading to low productivity and employee turnover. Addressing conflicts as they arise, whether by raising the issue with the human resources department or having a one-on-one meeting with a co-worker, is crucial to avoiding damaging recurring conflicts.
- Show respect. Treat your co-workers with decency. All employees should consider the ways their actions and reactions affect others.
- Seek common ground. For relationship conflicts and value conflicts especially, seeking commonality among employees who disagree can help put the conflict in perspective and facilitate productive dialogue.
In addition, managers can take the following actions to resolve conflicts when working remotely:
- Listening to employees. Employees may have important insights into team dynamics that can be useful for resolving conflicts. Listen to employees with compassion and set aside biases to learn what exactly is going on.
- Not assuming. Bosses may have even less insight into employee activities in remote settings than they do in in-person settings. Managers can lessen conflicts by objectively seeking information surrounding the conflict and approaching it with a mindset of trying to understand.
- Keeping consistent work hours. Scheduling conflicts and an “always on” approach to working erodes work-life balance, leading to increased stress for employees. Managers should show restraint in messaging their employees during odd hours. They should hold consistent open office hours for employees.
- Setting clear rules about disciplinary action. Some employees may hesitate to bring conflicts to a manager’s attention out of fear of consequences. By setting and communicating clear rules around employee behaviors, and holding all employees to those standards, managers set the tone for respectful, fair discourse at their organization.
Employees, likewise, can address conflicts in the remote workplace as it arises by using the following strategies:
- Pausing before sending text messages. Since so many remote work conflicts arise from miscommunication, especially over texts, employees can reduce conflicts by pausing and thinking through their messages before clicking “send.”
- Consider asking a third party to review a written communication. When employees are not sure how their message may be received, they should ask another person to review the message before they send it.
- Offer charitable interpretations to co-workers. It’s natural to take feedback personally. Working to interpret others’ comments in a charitable light can reduce feelings of resentment, frustration, and anger that build in high-stakes environments.
- Ask for help. Employees who face conflict in the workplace often feel alone, but resources for navigating challenging disputes can help. For example, asking an impartial co-worker or manager to weigh in on the conflict can give much-needed perspective.
How to Cultivate a Collaborative Remote Work Environment
A collaborative work environment — when a group works together toward a common goal and shares ideas to get there — works best when teams proactively avoid conflict and swiftly resolve disputes as they occur.
Here are four strategies for creating a collaborative work environment for remote employees and teams.
1. Establish Regular Team Meetings
Employees who work remotely can benefit — perhaps especially so — from regular team meetings. Remote workers are prone to isolation; consistently meeting with fellow team members — for example, on a virtual platform like Zoom — can foster open communication channels and serve as a support network for employees, thereby reducing the anxiety provoked by ambiguity and increasing the confidence that comes from clarity.
2. Apply Rules to All Employees Fairly
Establishing clear written rules and regulations for all employees gives remote employees structure and boundaries. Applying the rules to everyone equally can reduce tensions among employees and increase transparency within an organization.
3. Use a Shared Online Workspace
Create a common workspace for team members to communicate quickly and informally. Teams may benefit from project tracking software that eliminates ambiguity and sets clear expectations for workers on and across teams, leading to a reduction in task conflicts.
4. Celebrate Wins
When remote teams do great work, celebrate. Communal awards for shared successes reinforce a sense of camaraderie — even among employees who work far away from one another. Fostering community among team members can lead to future collaborations. Also, celebrating is fun and worth doing for the sheer pleasure of it.
Prepare for the Remote Workforce: Earn an Online Business Degree
Remote work is here to stay, and so is conflict in the workplace. Why not pursue an education that prepares future leaders for the challenges of managing today’s virtual workforce?
Students who complete St. Catherine University’s online business degree programs learn how to succeed in our changing world. By pursuing the online business management degree program, students gain experience in planning, strategizing, and managing all aspects of business, from allocating resources to creating innovative business plans. And because the programs are tailored to online learning, St. Kate’s programs equip graduates with the necessary skills to become leaders in today’s increasingly digital and distributed business landscape..
The Atlantic, “Another Truth About Remote Work”
AVI-SPL, “5 Tips for Resolving Conflict During Remote Work”
Bureau of Labor Statistics, Economics Daily: Workers Ages 25 to 54 More Likely to Telework Due to COVID–19 in February 2021
Fast Company, “3 Ways to Resolve Conflict When Your Entire Workforce Is Remote”
Harvard Law School, “3 Types of Conflict and How to Address Them”
Make Use Of, “What Is Remote Work Conflict? 12 Ways to Prevent It”
Morning Consult, “How the Pandemic Has Altered Expectations of Remote Work”
My Perfect Resume, “The Blow-by-Blow on Remote Work Conflict — 2021 Study”
Pew Research Center, “How the Coronavirus Outbreak Has — and Hasn’t — Changed the Way Americans Work”
Pew Research Center, “How the Internet and Technology Shaped Americans’ Personal Experiences Amid COVID-19”
Pew Research Center, “Even in Industries Where Majorities Can Telework, Some Face Challenges Working from Home During Pandemic”
Psychology Today, “Rethinking Conflict at Work”
Society for Human Resource Management, “The Biggest Remote-Work Lessons Managers Have Learned”
Society for Human Resource Management, “Settling Conflicts in a Remote-Work World”
Virtual Vocations, “Remote Work Conflict: An In-Depth Guide for Resolving Issues”
U.S. Census Bureau, “Working from Home During the Pandemic”