Managing remote disputes

May 27, 2020
Managing remote disputes

You might expect staff disputes and grievances to go away during a period of lockdown. But human nature will find a way of starting an argument if it really wants to. After all, didn’t Neil Gaiman once write that civilization is only twenty-four hours and two meals away from barbarism?

Even with a totally remote workforce, business leaders have told me that HR is still spending time resolving conflict and managing relationships between employees. So I decided to look into managing remote disputes in a bit more detail.

Good news: remote workers tend to have fewer disputes

Despite my gloomy opening paragraph, I feel I have to add that in my experience, there are far fewer disputes between employees when teams work remotely. And this seems to be the experience of other business leaders, too.

“I find co-worker disputes rare when employees work remotely” says Laura Handrick, an HR professional with over 20 years of experience. “That’s because the annoying people habits, like talking too loud, interrupting during meetings or unfriendly expressions, occur less often in an online environment.”

Laura says that because most conversations happen via email, text or Slack, you’re also far less likely to find yourself having to mediate a ‘he said, she said’ situation. But of course, disputes do still happen between team members who work remotely – and they don’t always take the same form as the disputes you might be more accustomed to dealing with.

Disputes take a different form amongst remote teams

While remote working may protect us from having to watch the office’s serial nose picker at work, it presents its own set of challenges and tensions for workplace relationships. For example, communicating completely via email or live chat can cause serious misunderstandings.

“Only communicating via email is not always the most effective way to work (remotely), as sentiments can easily be misconstrued” says business psychologist Hannah Prince, as quoted by Personnel Today. And when I spoke to Courtney Keene, Director of Operations at MyRoofingPal, I found similar communication issues were present on other text-based communication platforms.

“There was a dispute between two employees, one male and one female” Courtney tells me. “The female employee was concerned about some inappropriate behaviour on the male employee’s part. She brought it to my attention, along with screenshots from a private Slack chat.”

Courtney says that after investigating the problem, it became clear that the problem was down to the male employee’s inexperience with speaking to people online. Courtney adds that in a face-to-face situation, the male employee would have been able to give certain social cues that would have made the female employee more comfortable with the situation.

Resolving and managing remote disputes effectively

A large part of managing remote disputes, is to facilitate more effective communication in the first place. If we look at the advice given by experts in the Personnel Today article mentioned above, we can quickly see that many problems can be anticipated by encouraging employees to communicate via other mediums than text-based platforms. Telephone, video chat, etc.

But while prevention is normally better than the cure, there are of course times when you may have to intervene. And HR expert Laura Handrick offers her advice on what you should do in this case.

“Serious grievances that happen remotely should be dealt with exactly as you would if it were an in-person situation” she tells me. “Talk to the person making the complaint. Get feedback from the other party. Review any related data (emails, Slack messages, texts, documents) and then consider having the two individuals ‘meet’ to work it out.”

Laura says that if that doesn’t work, you might need to ask managers to assist. And if disciplinary action is appropriate, you can continue to follow your standard protocol, which may include a written warning, or documenting a personal improvement plan.

10 ways to resolve disputes at work

A while back, my colleague published a useful guide containing 10 ways to prevent and resolve disputes in the workplace. I believe that many of these tips are still useful in a remote environment:

  1. Hire team players
  2. Encourage a mature attitude to disagreement
  3. Provide dispute resolution tools
  4. Teach negotiation skills
  5. Create ‘cool-down zones’ (this could be difficult remotely)
  6. Develop a formal grievance policy
  7. Remain neutral and objective
  8. Find opportunity in every conflict
  9. Make an example of unacceptable behaviour
  10. Create a bespoke conflict agreement

You can read these in more detail by going to this page: 10 Steps to Resolve Disputes at Work.

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