Handling Conflict at a Distance

Agile Alliance
4 min readApr 23, 2020

by Dwight Kingdon

Things are not what they used to be.

Many are now working remotely for the first time in their lives — away from those they are used to being with five days a week. One of the challenges of working remotely is dealing with conflict when we’re apart. During the first weeks of working from home there is typically not much conflict. We are busy setting up our new workstation, learning to use new communication and collaboration tools, and figuring out how to best interact with those we used to sit in close proximity to. But conflict will eventually arise. We are still the same people we were a short time ago when we were together.

Once your remote team has settled into a sense of normalcy, you may begin seeing early signs of conflict. They may be subtle, but they will surface. It may be that a usually energetic person suddenly becomes quieter or less engaged during your daily video check-ins. Maybe you start seeing outbursts over something as simple as a technical glitch with your video tool. When we’re not physically together it is easier to hide our emotions and sweep conflict under the rug. But eventually those built-up feelings will come out into the open — usually exhibited by conflict between two people. But conflict is not a bad thing. Conflict can be an indicator that something could be improved. The challenge is how to deal with conflict at a distance. Here are a few suggestions.

Create trust

Proactively create a culture of trust and openness so when conflict arises it is constructive and not destructive. Make time for bonding and relationship-building with your remote team. While we’re at home, allow your personal life to mix with your business life. If a child or spouse wanders into your video view, don’t rush them out of the room. Instead introduce them to the team. When your cat jumps onto your keyboard or your dog barks and disrupts your meeting, laugh and make a joke of it. Showing the personal side of life reveals to others that you are a human being with a family and distractions just like them. It’s harder to be angry at someone you see as a person and not just a co-worker.

Accept the new normal

Your team was operating within a set of either written or assumed guardrails before you were separated. Things are different now. It is probably time to reevaluate and agree on a new “team working agreement”. We now share new expectations on how to communicate and collaborate, how we handle conflict, and how we support each other as a team. Make time to discuss and decide as a team what these new norms are and set proper expectations for adherence.

Communicate like a pro

Communicating expertly can reduce the chance of conflict. Given our current state of affairs, face-to-face communication — the best form of communication — is rarely possible, so our next best option is video. Video is better than a phone call and is much better than email or online chat, but video still limits our ability to catch some non-verbal cues. It is much easier to miscommunicate and misunderstand when we don’t notice body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice due to poor video quality, audio quality, or screen size. Non-verbal cues can indicate that conflict is present or is about to surface. George Bernard Shaw once said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” It is more important now than ever to make sure you are understood, not just heard. Ask qualifying questions and validate that what you said or heard is actually what was intended. Limiting misunderstanding will go a long way toward reducing future conflict.

Be accountable

When conflict arises, own up to your part of it. Conflict is rarely one-sided. Instead of battling to place blame, focus on a solution. There is often a difference between why we think someone did something and the actual reason they did it. Give them a chance to explain their side, and truly listen. Periodic team retrospectives are a great tool to get issues out in the open where they can be resolved. If a biweekly retrospective is too long to wait to resolve a conflict (and it probably is), start having brief micro-retrospectives at the end of your daily team check-ins. As a team member you are responsible for voicing your opinion, and then you are accountable to support decisions as a team even if you didn’t get your way. Accountability helps reduce conflict.

Lighten up

Everyone is under pressure and is dealing with change and uncertainty. Yes, we still need to perform, but don’t expect everyone to behave the same way they do at the office. Allow and even encourage humor. Be a little more flexible and adaptable when things don’t go perfectly. Be supportive of those who may struggle with remote technology or have family distractions. You’ll be surprised how much conflict can be diffused by a single word of kindness.

Stephen Hawking said, “Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.” We’re all going through big changes. Now is the time to be creative and innovative as we work remotely and manage conflict from a distance. The best working-from-home and distributed dynamics ideas are yet to be discovered. People are people. Conflict will always be with us, whether we’re in the same room or a thousand miles apart. The difference will be how you plan for and mitigate it.

This is an Agile Alliance community blog post. Opinions represented are personal and belong solely to the author. They do not represent opinion or policy of Agile Alliance.

Originally published at https://www.agilealliance.org on April 23, 2020.



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