Even before the start of this pandemic, office conflict has been a thorny issue for companies everywhere. They start first as friendly discussions and group brainstorms, but soon someone starts interjecting with critiques or distracting side conversations spiral into unproductive gossip.
And these challenges are made further complicated as we approach the coming summer months, with some employees remaining work-from-home, while others are in-person. There’s no denying that the COVID-19 outbreak has changed fundamental parts of work. As leaders, we have to rethink the way we manage conflict, which let’s face it—has never been an easy feat.
Even as many of us get back to our offices, we can’t simply stick to pre-pandemic expectations when it comes to conflict-resolution—which leaves us with the uncomfortable question of what are we to do about it? How can we ensure managers and mid-level leaders are prepared to mitigate problems outside of the office setting? And how can we keep tabs from afar?
Unfortunately, like the rest of this past year and a half, there’s no ready script for us to follow. It requires we adjust on the fly. And more importantly, we have to be clearer than ever with our teams. Here are a few points to keep in mind.
Learn to identify harmful vs. healthy conflict
As companies adjust to their new work conditions, being able to tell these two types of conflicts apart can be tricky. Thoughts arise like, “Is the employee in the office voicing a strong opinion over Zoom, or deliberately challenging his colleague who’s working from home?”
A big mistake I often see leaders make is confusing one with the other. But as Harvard Business Review’s Liane Davey, writes that sometimes teams need conflict to function well: “Conflict allows the team to come to terms with difficult situations, to synthesize diverse perspectives, and to make sure solutions are well thought-out,” Davey writes. “Conflict is uncomfortable, but it is the source of true innovation and also a critical process in identifying and mitigating risks.”
One of the most helpful things I’ve learned when it comes to identifying one type of conflict over the other, is to weigh impact over intention. What are the effects of an employee’s behavior on the overall culture? Is gossip starting to spread? Are their actions being interpreted as aggressive? Even if an employee’s intention is in the right place—the impact they have on the team weighs more.
Managers and mid level hires will need to be trained to critically analyze these differences before they can know how to react.
To stop harmful conflict, eliminate ambiguity
I am a firm believer that ambiguity is the enemy of a positive work culture — no matter where people are working from. Not having a system for resolving harmful conflict only sets employees up for failure.
That’s why I’d like to relay the value of setting firm policies around the way our teams communicate, which for me, entails full transparency.
It’s crucial for managers and mid-level leaders to create an environment of openness and honesty. For example, at my technology company, we make it a point to let employees know from the start what’s expected of them, in terms of both formal and informal communication. Setting these ground rules in advance helps equalize the playing field — whether we’re sharing physical space or not.
When dealing with sensitive personnel matters from afar, you should focus on being mindful of the medium: on a video call, give the people involved an equal amount of time to give their version of events without interruptions. Also note that if teams are scattered across multiple time zones (as in the case of our 300+ employees), written communication will be easier than organizing a group call.
Eliminating ambiguity also means giving teams the right tools to foster open discussions and avoid misunderstandings. Setting up a Slack channel for out of work meetings, for instance, gives people the chance to ask and answer questions; giving less room for back-channels to emerge.
Keep in mind that since the stress of this pandemic is ongoing, you’ll want to be continually adjusting these policies and giving teams a grace period of adjustment.
Model your values as a leader
I’d like to offer an example of how to model values from my experiences leading a team. During a recent staff meeting, one of our new employees, who I’ll call Matt, made a seemingly harmless joke about his work-from-home colleagues having an easier time. I mention this because If I’d laughed or nodded in agreement at that moment, it would have sent a message about which employees I valued most.
Instead, I used Matt’s comment as an opportunity to remind everyone of our shared empathy; how we’re all on the same team, and what’s important is to be as helpful as possible to one another during these challenging times. What I’ve learned is that whoever your reports are—your new employees, your managers, or your mid-level leaders—they are all listening and watching, even from afar. As a leader, your words are heightened to nth degree. And even our smallest micro-attitude (like laughing or not laughing at a simple joke) has consequences that will eventually shape our company’s overall culture. Modeling our values as leaders, then, means reinforcing an atmosphere of trust and respect—full stop.
Aytekin Tank is the founder of JotForm, a popular online form builder. Established in 2006, JotForm allows customizable data collection for enhanced lead generation, survey distribution, payment collections, and more.