I was giving a speech to a group of insurance leaders last week. We were talking about the importance of working through conflicts as they arise to ensure they don’t stall productivity or erode trust. The question that came up most frequently in my conversations before and after the speech was how to manage conflict in their remote teams, that often had members in three different cities. It’s a great question: one worth spending some time on.

Virtual Teams

First off, what is a virtual team? Wikipedia defines a virtual team as a group of individuals who work together from different geographic locations and rely on communication technology to collaborate. A virtual team can also be referred to as a “geographically distributed team” or a “remote team.” The point is, you’re a team (i.e., you share common goals and are interdependent) but you don’t sit in the same place.

The Challenge of Virtual Teams

There are several challenges of working on a virtual team. When it comes to healthy relationships, two of the most important obstacles are that virtual team members have fewer casual interactions and that the interactions they do have lack the quality of face-to-face communication.

When it comes to conflict specifically, the biggest problem is that it’s easier to avoid conflict in a virtual team. That means conflicts are left unresolved. If you’re not walking past each other multiple times a day or sitting eye-to-eye in a meeting room, there’s less motive to deal with the issue and move on. It’s more tempting to just let the problem simmer on the back burner.

To make matters worse, many people have been taught that they’re only supposed to address sensitive issues face-to-face. Even managers often wait to provide constructive feedback to a remote employee until they’re visiting the office where the person works. That makes feedback less timely and often makes it feel like a bigger deal than it is.

Working Through Conflict Virtually

If an issue is starting to concern you, it’s best to deal with it quickly, before it has time to balloon into a more serious problem. If the concern is about your work together, broach the subject before the misalignment impacts the project. If the concern is about your interactions or the person’s style, deal with it while it’s only a minor irritant rather than letting it erode trust. Here’s how.

  1. Prepare what you’re going to say. I’ve talked about the disadvantages of remote teams but there’s one big advantage. In a co-located team, conflicts often erupt without advanced warning. Maybe you get so frustrated in a meeting that you roll your eyes and accidentally launch an epic battle. You’re into the thick of it without time to consider what you want to say, which often means the conflict will get personal and unproductive. With a virtual team, you usually have time to think through your points and even prepare some examples that will make the conversation more constructive.
  2. Provide a heads up that you want to have a discussion. When you’re together in person and you have something uncomfortable to say, your body language will give it away. A furrowed brow or a change in eye contact will tip-off the person that you’re displeased. Even if they only pick up on it subconsciously, it will be a useful warning to them. That information is less easily available to the person working remotely. Use a quick call, message, or email to set up the conversation, such as, “I’m worried that we’re getting off track with the transformation project. I’m sending you a meeting update so we can talk about it.” That will give the person an opportunity to collect their thoughts so that the conversation is more of a dialogue than a monologue. Otherwise, it will feel like you’re springing it on them.
  3. Use the best quality communication technology you have. If your office has an elaborate holographic video conferencing system, use it. If you have Skype, use it. Make sure you’re adding in as much body language as possible to the conversation. If you’re stuck with the phone, add in a running commentary. “I’m sorry I was quiet for a moment there. I’m frustrated and was trying to figure out how to say this.”
  4. Have a cheat sheet. Here’s another great thing about conflict over the computer—you can have notes to yourself in front of you. Maybe it’s something as simple as the word, “BREATHE” in giant letters across a sheet of paper. Maybe it’s the list of the four points you want to make sure you cover. [Another benefit is that with conferencing, you can see yourself on the screen…this is great for instant feedback about how you’re coming across.]
  5. Work through the feedback. The actual content of your discussion should be exactly the same as if you were in person, so I won’t go into it here. I’ve included some links below that take you through the basics.
  6. Follow-up, follow-up, follow-up. When you’re in the same office, you have many chances to demonstrate that things are getting better. Eye-contact will return, you’ll start to smile at each other (even if it’s a little strained). Slowly, you’ll see that any hard feelings caused by the conflict are abating. You don’t have the benefit of that in a virtual team. That makes it important that you schedule a follow-up discussion and also that you use informal opportunities to provide feedback about what’s working and what isn’t. “It’s been a week since our conversation, I feel like we’ve made great progress on staying on track. I’d love to keep improving on our daily log progress. What do you think?”
  7. Reconnect on a lighter note. I’ve always hated the concept of “no news is good news.” If that’s the case on a virtual team, it means you’re only going to hear something if the shit is hitting the fan. To strengthen your relationships across different locations, ensure that more of your communications are positive than negative. Call with a quick message of thanks every once in a while. Send an interesting article or funny clip to let your colleague know you’re thinking of them. Invest as you would in any relationship so that when conflict arises, you give each other the benefit of the doubt.

Further Reading

How to Deliver Feedback

Virtual Teams and How to Give Feedback from Afar

4 Secrets of Avoiding the Conflict Spiral