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MANAGING STAFF

How to resolve conflicts in a virtual, remote work environment

By Lynne Curry

“We had a situation blow up this morning,” the law practice partner said when he called for advice. “It came out of nowhere. One small issue, a manager not letting his peer know about a meeting, unleashed a tidal wave of anger from her. We talked to the first manager. He said he’d accidentally overlooked putting the other manager on the Zoom invitation. He reminded us the other manager hates meetings and complains about how many she is forced to attend.”

“And you believe him?” I asked. “Does the other manager?”

Conflicts flourish in a virtual work environment. Rarely do explosions come out of nowhere.

Why conflict explodes in a virtual environment

Virtual and remote work environments can become petri dishes for conflict.

When we work with coworkers and managers located at the same worksite, we have easy access to each other. We can drop into each other’s offices if we have questions or want to talk through mutual projects. We casually run into each other at the coffeepot and get a sense of each other as people.

If we work remotely, we have fewer opportunities to develop rapport. When we communicate via email and text, we can’t see each other’s facial expressions, nor hear the other’s tone of voice. If the email or text sender is someone who is stressed or gets immediately down to business without an initial “hi, hope all is well,” their messages can come across as abrupt. If we’re stressed as well, we can take offense. Testy emails devolve into grudges.

Unaddressed conflict

Unaddressed conflict festers, derailing projects, eroding morale, and increasing stress for both involved parties and those watching from the sidelines. Left unchecked, conflict escalates, and can rip a team to pieces.

Wise managers work to prevent and resolve escalating conflicts.

Here’s how

  • If the organization can afford it, bring the company or team together in face-to-face kickoff or annual meetings. Load these meetings with activities during which employees get to know each other.
  • Model direct, positive communications.
  • Resolve brewing conflict. Like rancid chicken, conflict doesn’t improve when put aside for later.
  • Develop managers’ and employees’ communications and conflict resolution skills.
  • Create team norms such as the “48-hour direct rule”—”if you have an issue, raise within 48 hours and via phone, rather than email”.
  • Directly confront passive-aggressive conflict behaviors.
  • Hold regular team meetings. Let your employees know you want them to voice how they see issues during these meetings, and not in the hallway afterwards. If you sense unspoken issues, open the door to hidden concerns with comments such as, “What problems might this proposal create?” or “I sense some of you have hesitations, let’s raise and discuss those concerns.”
  • If a conflict continues, pull the involved parties into a meeting or video call. Establish meeting ground rules and let each party tell his/her story so that that others can listen and hear. Facilitate a discussion in which the parties come to an agreement.

Finally, you said this blow up came out of nowhere. Really? Your manager may have spoken honestly when he said he innocently forgot to put the other manager on the Zoom invite. His response, however, doesn’t explain the other manager’s tidal wave of anger. Does she have an anger management problem? Or have small unresolved incidents created a tinderbox that led to this omission igniting? This manager gives you a clue the latter might be the truth when he reminds you that the other manager complains about meetings.

My suggestion—check further.

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