Effective conflict management while remote working

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The ongoing health crisis continues to disrupt businesses in many ways. Employers and managers, who would have had tried and tested people management policies, are now trying to cope with a completely different situation as employees continue to work remotely. In this week’s article Derek McKay, Managing Director of Adare Human Resource Management provides advice on how best to manage conflicts and disputes while employees work remotely during the crisis.

Workplace conflicts and disputes are traditionally issues that you would expect to happen in a face-to-face situation amongst colleagues. But with employees working remotely, conflict and disputes haven’t disappeared or been put on hold; they still exist and need to be managed and addressed correctly to mitigate issues down the track.

Out of sight but not out of mind

The current pandemic forced many employees to work from home overnight, changing the traditional methods of people management. Managers needed to adapt quickly to recognise and build awareness of conflicts and disputes in the virtual environment.

Workplace conflicts and disputes can have a negative effect on the health and wellbeing of people involved with significant impact on the organisation as well. Quite often, conflicts and disputes can reduce employees’ productivity, impact on the wider team and take up time and resources in order to resolve issues. There are also financial implications if an organisation finds itself in the Workplace Relations Commission or the Labour Court. So, it’s crucial that with employees working from home, workplace conflicts don’t go unnoticed, forgotten about or ignored until people return to the office. This will inevitably lead to a situation that will become unmanageable.

Conflicts and disputes can arise in the workplace for a number of reasons, particularly when working remotely as face-to-face interaction is not possible to resolve small issues quickly. Colleagues can become aggrieved over workloads, management styles, personality clashes or miscommunications online among other things. But in a remote working situation, the most common issue may inevitably by down to communication.

Importance of effective communication

Effective communication is important in terms of providing support and reassurance to employees at time of uncertainty. Employees working remotely may already be under stresses that they wouldn’t normally be used to such as lack of social interaction, structured working environment, financial worries and childcare issues.

Poor communication in a remote working situation will often generate stress and contribute to conflicts and disputes. Communicating in a virtual work environment is different than in a workplace; we tend to rely more heavily on email and direct messaging much more and miss out on the social cues associated with face-to-face interactions.

Misunderstanding or misinterpreting meaning or tone is an easy thing to happen when communicating by email; quite often we don’t tend to think about how a quickly typed email can impact the person receiving it – and in the world of work, this can end up in grievances arising.

While virtual meeting platforms, such as Zoom, have helped, it is still difficult to read body language and people are less inclined to interrupt a video conversation. Therefore, it is easy to see how frustration and misinterpretation can happen, leading to a conflict situation.

Working remotely takes away the opportunity to have informal conversations with colleagues, managers or even HR team members, removing the chance to talk through potential issues early and preventing any escalation to a conflict or dispute.

Managing conflict remotely

Employers must still adhere to employment legislation regardless of the current health crisis. They must still have, and follow, policies and procedures in place to deal with issues around discipline, grievances and conflicts.

There are some practical ways that managers can support employees who are working remotely in dealing with conflicts and disputes.

  • Stay connected: check in regularly and not just about work-related issues; it’s important that a collegial atmosphere is fostered where possible to breakdown any barriers that might have built up as a result of remote working.
  • Show empathy: stay impartial in the event of a dispute or conflict. Show understanding for all sides and don’t become part of the problem.
  • Deal with conflict early: if conflict arises between colleagues, engage as early as possible to prevent any escalation of the situation.
  • Follow procedures: if a conflict or dispute escalates, then make sure to follow the policies and procedures that are in place in the Organisation, such as mediation and grievance. There should also be strict adherence to disciplinary procedures if required. This is crucially important if an employee decides to bring a case to the WRC.

Attending WRC during Covid-19

Given ongoing restrictions, the WRC recently issued a statement asking for anyone involved in upcoming hearings to be “positively disposed to complaints being adjudicated upon via both written proceedings and remote hearings”.

Given the WRC suspended services for a number of months in March due to Covid-19, and with the current restrictions in place, our expectation is that there will be a considerable backlog of cases over the coming months.

Our advice for employers and HR managers is to follow the simple advice outlined above, appreciate that people may be in a stressed and unusual situation and maintain open communication to ensure a situation does not evolve into a conflict if possible.

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