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Dealing with Conflict – Top Tips for Managing Issues Remotely

Many of us spend a large proportion of our time at work, so it’s essential that the quality of the working environment is good, in order to protect general wellbeing.

From early 2020 the working landscape changed dramatically driven by the COVID pandemic and the unforeseen impact on business operations across industries, demanding remote and flexible working to enable businesses to continue to operate.

Whilst for so many people their ‘place’ of the work changed, issues experienced in the office may have spilt over into remote working, with tensions between team members continuing and in some ways taking on a different ‘form’.   Absence does not necessarily ‘make the heart grow fonder’ and where old tensions still exist, they need to be understood, managed and resolved.  This article looks at ways to do that.

Tension and Conflict – how to manage issues remotely

Firstly, it is important to understand that some tension can be positive, such as genuine competition between team members which can drive sales or general business performance.  However managers need to recognise when a desire to win spills over into something different.  Negative conflict such as bullying, belittling and personality clashes can upset individuals and undermine team morale and hence the importance of addressing issues early and considering how to deal with this sensitively, often made even more challenging when this takes place across a video screen.  A good manager knows where the fine line between positive competition and underlying tension sits and takes action as appropriate, wherever and however the issue has arisen.

Here are our top tips for managing conflicts whilst remote working:

1 – Prevention is better than cure:

Managers need to deal with difficult situations before they escalate into something more significant and before they present a risk of a claim against the business and/or an individual.  Managers are best placed to do this as they know their teams well.  Having strong relationships with team members allows for conflicts to be anticipated, problems to be aired and for managers to have a better insight into matters which may be affecting their team.  In the remote world, ‘out of sight’, should not be ‘out of mind’.  Managers shouldfind a timescale that suits and proactively schedule online 1-2-1 catch ups with the team, as well as regular online team meetings.  This way a general awareness of what is happening at ground level can be developed and squabbles and negativity can be spotted and addressed in a timely manner.

2 – Be aware of simmering tensions:

Some individuals may bottle things up and allow them to ‘grow before they blow’ others may be quick to anger and complain.  It’s the role of the manager to recognise when this is happening.  The 1-2-1 is the forum to spot this and managers should not be afraid to tackle issues head on notwithstanding that the video might feel like a challenging barrier to open and honest conversation,  and encourage employees to open up about their concerns, so they can be resolved.

3 – Do not personally get involved in office gossip or politics:

Casual kitchen and water station conversations may be a distant memories, however it still remains important for managers to not get drawn into gossip or office politics.   Whilst some discussions of this nature are inevitable across team members, managers should not participate.  Watch out for the MS Teams chit chat and sub groups forming on other platforms like Whattsapp where discussion crosses the boundaries of work and personal life. If colleagues are talking about each other, managers should ask them to stop before tensions arise or issues occur.  A manager who participates will lose the respect of their team.  This same advice applies to online chat and emails.  If managers sense that discussions may be discriminatory in nature, formal procedures should be followed.

4 – Set clear expectations in respect of conduct.

Managers should be clear in what they expect from their teams in general and during meetings whether they take place remotely or in person.  Meetings should be professional and controlled.  Contributions made by team members should be respected and negativity should be challenged.  Everyone should be encouraged to contribute and debate rather than criticise.  As far as possible issue should be resolved rather than being left to simmer.  In order for a manager to gain respect and avoid resentment growing between team members, favouritism should not occur, so be mindful of how you chair a remote meeting and be conscious about ensuring that everyone gets the opportunity to speak – something that can be difficult to manage across a screen and which might require prompts or expectation setting about who will speak, about what, and when.

5 – Deal with individuals who are causing issues:

An individual may not necessarily see the impact their behaviour is having on others, or alternatively there may be other issues external to work that are impacting upon the individual’s behaviour.  Sometimes a 1-2-1 discussion is all it takes for the manager to understand and resolve matters.  Managers should not shy away from discussing negative behaviours.   Where matters do not improve after informal intervention, more formal action can be considered.

When problems escalate:

If situations cannot be resolved during 1-2-1 discussions, managers need to consider more formal options, which may include a grievance process for any individuals with concerns and as applicable, performance management or disciplinary action either remotely or depending on what circumstances and socially distancing restrictions exist, taking steps to do this in person.

If your business would be helped by sound boarding any of the issues raised here or any HR or employment law concern that you might have, don’t hesitate to reach out to us for a free consultation with one of our expert legal team on legal@lexleyton.co.uk

Take advice and seek support and reassurance early, to ensure that you have the confidence to know your options and can deal with these kinds of issue at ground level and before matters escalate into a more formal process.

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