7 Steps to Socializing Virtual Teams and Minimizing Conflict Better

Traditionally, conflict within work teams elicits images of co-workers throwing down verbally in the hallway. Or, some passive-aggressive behavior during meetings that is designed to make a peer flip his lid. Eventually, management puts a stop to the behavior and the dysfunction, putting the workers back on track. With the rise of virtual teams in the workplace, face-to-face conflict has gone digital and makes a supervisor’s job of conflict management more difficult.

Many businesses operate teams with employees or contractors in multiple locations, which forces team members to conduct meetings and exchange messages online. The smart company is the one that prepares for virtual conflict management before it is a problem.

What is virtual conflict?

According to HR.com, any disagreement that stems from, or is worsened by, miscommunication on a digital platform counts as virtual conflict.  Online chats, email and text messages all fall under the umbrella of digital communication.

Remember however, the reasons for conflict are much the same for regular or virtual employees. It’s usually interpersonal or task-related. Personality conflicts are, by far, the most difficult to manage. Virtual employees often are on their own for weeks or months and the toxicity of conflict with a peer can boil over until one, or both, of the parties quit. Task-related conflicts are typically more straightforward to resolve and often lead to a better way of doing things.

Why does virtual conflict happen?

There are a wide variety of reasons co-workers might have a virtual conflict. The limitations of non-verbal communication prevent people from being able to read significant body language or interpret tone of voice, two aspects of conversation that often speak louder than words. Text forces readers to make their best guesses at the sender’s intentions.

In addition, human error is often the culprit, on the part of both the sender and the receiver. Senders may inadvertently misspell words, leave out key punctuation or forget to include a team member on a group message. Receivers can miss important information in longer messages by skimming through it or neglecting to scroll to the end.

Training magazine points out that a major trigger in this kind of conflict is caused by virtual distance, which is a “sense of psychological and emotional detachment generated when most encounters and experiences are mediated by screens, [such as] smart devices.”

Lindred Greer, an organizational behavior professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, stated teams working separately and relying on the Internet or digital platforms to communicate are much more likely to take misunderstandings personally. This means conflicts can escalate quickly.

Steps that will help minimize virtual conflict

There are many steps both employees and management can take to ensure virtual teams stay on task and on schedule. When conflicts do arise — and they will because teams are composed of human beings and that’s what humans do — these tips can help lessen the effects of the conflict:

  1. Create specific communication policies: 

    Establishing company-wide rules for email language, text messaging and more helps employees better navigate virtual communication with co-workers. Create a virtual style-guide for written communication that everyone understands and follows.

  2. Vet team members thoroughly:

    Let’s be honest, not everyone has the temperament or ability to work virtually. They may be habitually late with their work or a chronic procrastinator. Both of those are problems even when teams work together in the same building. On a virtual team, it’s a guarantee for trouble. Make sure you pick the right people for the team at the start.

  3. Be patient: 

    Any employee crafting a message should take time to read and edit wording before sending. The recipient should take a 10-count and a deep breath before firing off an angry response to a message they perceive as negative. Read the message a second or third time to make sure it’s as negative as you thought the first time.

  4. Use fewer words in correspondence: 

    Wordy interpersonal messages tend to confuse and convolute the true meaning or intention. Try to say more with less is generally the best option in the office.

  5. Have perspective: 

    It’s helpful to put oneself in another’s shoes, especially when it comes to communication. Perhaps an email response is curt because a team member is traveling and only has a few minutes between flights to relay information? If you’ve established a good working relationship before, the two-way communication should nip this in the bud before it becomes a problem.

  6. Make in-person meetings a priority:

    Get the team together right off the bat so they can meet each other and you can go over team goals. If possible, bring them together at least two or three times a year to build a greater sense of inclusion in the business and camaraderie among the team.

  7. Schedule in a few minutes of “socializing virtual team” time for every virtual meeting: 

    Research indicates that some level of social interaction with supervisors and colleagues is necessary for productive virtual workers. In the office, co-workers shoot the breeze on breaks, share personal stories at lunch, and socialize at after work gatherings. All of this strengthens social bonds and builds mutually beneficial relationships. Such interactions give a platform for employees to vent out their negative thoughts and replicate positive emotions, making them more motivated and satisfied.

These are just a few ways your company can lay the groundwork for stronger and more effective virtual work teams. Keeping all lines of communication open between management and the work group will eliminate many problems.

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