Managing Increased Conflict and Tension in Remote Working Teams

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After the COVID-19 pandemic forced companies around the world to institute remote working policies, “experts” flooded the Internet with tutorials, workshops, webinars, and other kinds of “help content” designed to teach people how to use remote working tools. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s also not the only thing people need. Learning to work remotely isn’t just about mastering the technologies. Remote work alters the social dynamics of workplace communities, and we need to be helping people understand those things, too.

Why remote working is hard

The company I ran prior to taking my current position had a 100% remote team. If I’m being honest, it was terrible. Not the company or the people… they were great. But working remotely was my least favorite part of that job. I didn’t fully understand why until I moved into my current position, a job that — until the pandemic — was 100% in-person.

My previous, remote-based company struggled with communication. Despite spending hours in video conferences each week and using every great online collaboration tool we could find — Slack, Trello, Salesforce, Jira, whatever — none of those are perfect substitutes for sharing a physical office space with your coworkers.

Yes, sharing a physical office space has its drawbacks — like when the person in the next cubicle brings a tunafish sandwich for lunch and you’re forced to smell it half the day. But, in-person working environments are filled with dozens of micro-engagements between coworkers that are critical to building healthy team dynamics. Online tools haven’t found a good way to replicate those micro-engagements yet, and it either leads to or magnifies workplace tension between coworkers.

Now that many of us are more than a month into our experiences working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m guessing many of you reading this are feeling the impacts of those magnified tensions. Let’s see if we can understand why.

How micro-engagements build community

While meetings are the obvious foundation of communication at most companies, for in-person teams, meetings primarily dictate what work needs to be done. The communication that happens outside of formalized meetings drives most of how it gets done.

For example, before being forced to work remotely, how many times per day did you walk to a coworker down the hall to ask a quick question or get some clarification about a project? For most of us, there have been days we’ve sought out coworkers at least a dozen times. But working remotely means we can’t do that.

I can hear you thinking, “That’s what tools like Slack are for!” I don’t disagree. But tools like Slack struggle to replicate the emotional connectivity that often develops through visiting a coworker in-person.

Your trips to coworkers’ offices in search of answers to quick questions rarely stop there. You might also chat about a mutually enjoyed TV show. Or you might reference an inside joke. Sometimes — more than you’re probably proud of — you talk about other coworkers. Those kinds of secondary conversations flow naturally when we’re seeing our colleagues face-to-face, but they don’t happen as easily or as often online. Either the conversations aren’t as natural, or people don’t type what they would have said in-person for fear of leaving a physical record. Admit it — you’ve said something about a colleague you wouldn’t have written in Slack.

This kind of office banter isn’t a waste of time or resources. Instead, it serves two critical purposes. First, it builds community. People forced to regularly interact with each other face-to-face often become close friends. Not always, of course. But most of us can point to significant friendships with current and former colleagues that developed as a byproduct of being coworkers.

Second, and I’d argue more importantly, office banter is key for diffusing tension and conflict within teams.

How remote working magnifies workplace conflict

If you’ve ever gotten into a stupid fight with a spouse, family member, significant other, or friend as a result of a misunderstood text or email, you know the danger of written communication. Everything we write can be interpreted multiple ways by speaking the same words using different tones of voice, inflections, or volumes. Our gestures also impact the way people perceive our words. For example, walk over to the closest person you can find (being careful to stay 6 feet apart!) and say “I hate you” while scowling and glaring. Then say the same thing to someone else while smiling and laughing. The response to the same words will be drastically different.

Because remote work forces more text-based communication, it amplifies the number of opportunities for people to misinterpret each other’s words. Sure, we can try to mitigate these tonal challenges by using more emojis and animated GIFs than we’d ever thought reasonable in a professional environment, but that’s not appropriate for every type of business communication. Personally, I’d feel weird sending “success kid” in an email about potential budget shortfalls to my 60-year-old boss.

To avoid the miscommunications caused by text-based conversations, our only other option is video chat. But that creates a different and equally insidious type of miscommunication.

While face-to-face meetings might seem glorious to people trapped in their houses for two months, we shouldn’t forget how our in-person meetings often create workplace frustration. Maybe they run too long. Maybe they often seem worthless. Maybe a coworker regularly says things that make others look bad in front of their bosses.

Sharing office space with our colleagues has a way of smoothing out some of the interoffice conflict caused by meetings. For example, if someone said something that annoyed you in a morning meeting, passing the same person in the hall later that afternoon offers a casual opportunity to clarify. Maybe your coworker apologizes. Or maybe he explains a misunderstanding. Or maybe he offers you a Thin Mint from the box of Girls Scout Cookies he just bought from another coworker and your anger dissipates with each bite of mint-chocolatey-goodness.

In contrast, when all our meetings are virtual, after they end we’re stuck by ourselves. The only thing we can do is stew on the things that made us angry. It increased workplace frustration, anxiety, anger, and even depression. We already have plenty of those things during this pandemic. We don’t need more.

Overcoming the challenges of remote teams

While all the online tutorials and articles and webinars being created to help people manage the logistical aspects of remote working are great, we need more resources to help us manage the interpersonal aspects of remote working. We need to help people learn to communicate without the kinds of in-person micro-engagements we’re so reliant on and, for the most part, oblivious to. We need tutorials for things like:

  • How to interpret short emails that seem curt and angry but probably aren’t meant to be
  • How to have candid, private conversations virtually
  • How to not obsess over your last meeting

I wish I was the right “expert” to write those tutorials, but I’m not. I’m just as guilty as the rest of you when it comes to thinking my boss is about to fire me because he wrote a three word response to my last email.

But, if there’s one piece of advice I have that seems worth sharing, it comes from a colleague of mine named Amanda. We were discussing the same kinds of issues I’ve written about here — via Zoom, of course — and Amanda said: “I make a point of assuming positive intent from everyone.”

Assuming positive intent from everyone… I like it!

In a deeply confused and scared world, one of the best things any of us can do for our colleagues is assume none of them are actively trying to sabotage us. They’re not trying to make us work harder, they’re not trying to do less work themselves, and they’re certainly not trying to get us fired. They’re all trying to do the exact same thing as everyone else: get through the day as best they can. Reminding yourself of that when you start to feel frustrated won’t eliminate all the challenges of remote work, but it’ll probably make you happier. And, these days, we could all use a little more happiness in our lives.

Written by

I teach entrepreneurship at Duke. Software Engineer. PhD in English. I write about the mistakes entrepreneurs make since I’ve made plenty. More @ aarondinin.com

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