We’ve all been there. You get an email from someone you work with and something doesn’t sit right. Was that word choice just a coincidence? Or, are they annoyed with me? Those absent, non-verbal cues are hard to interpret. It’s often difficult to gauge how your relationship is going with coworkers when you’re limited to online interactions.
And, if something does start to derail your relationship, you don’t have the benefit of informal office interactions to build rapport and re-establish trust. You can’t just pull everyone into a room to talk things through. Instead, you start operating with a social currency deficit. If you don’t address small irritants between your teammates, they can fester into resentment and eventually impact your contact center work.
For many companies, it’s likely we’ll never go back to the same in-office setting we’re used to. As perceptions about remote work shift, many companies are adopting blended models and adding more flexibility for their employees.
According to a recent Gallup poll on the effect of COVID-19 on remote work:
- Only 25% of remote employees are emotionally ready to return to the office
- Another 25% are reluctant to return specifically because of concerns about contracting COVID-19
- And, about 50% have a personal preference for working remotely
And with companies working remotely more often, leaders are faced with managing new key challenges, like how to handle conflict in the workforce.
If fully remote work or hybrid work is in your future, conflict resolution management has to take on a new look. How do you, manager, keep the levels of social currency plentiful when some of your contact center agents are together and some are working from home? Or, when your entire team is isolated in remote work settings?
Complications of Conflict and Remote Teams
Remote work presents some unique challenges that can cause communication breakdowns and emotional strain. Though there may not be more conflict in reality, sometimes the weight of conflict feels heavier when you’re working remotely.
Let’s consider some of the qualities of remote work environments that contribute to conflict:
1. Virtual environments can empower harsh communication.
Cyberbullying is only too common in 2020. Nearly 37% of people have felt they have been cyberbullied in their lifetime and 17% reporting cyberbullying in just the last 30 days. You don’t have to dig deep on social media or Reddit to see that that’s true. When people are behind a screen, they’re quick to use language they would never think to say to someone’s face.
This kind of language seeps into our professional settings. Your employees may feel empowered behind their computer screens to make brazen statements without thinking of the repercussions. Even when employees aren’t trying to be rude or offensive, wording and tone is easily misinterpreted in plain text. (Really though, people have written entire articles on writing “kk” vs. “ok” and why the difference matters).
Context gets lost in written communications. Responses are delayed, or there’s too much information to communicate in just a handful of sentences. You lose in-person signals that are vital in face-to-face communications. When you’re separated from your colleagues and forced to use technology to communicate, it can be harder to convey what you really think and feel.
2. Remote work increases insecurities.
Remote work is known to increase anxiety and insecurities among workers. It makes sense. Our daily interactions with others are shown to reinforce our sense of well-being and belonging. Buffer’s 2019 State of Remote Work report found that nearly one-fifth of employees who work remotely report loneliness as a challenge. Add all the employees that have become remote in recent months, and that number is sure to be higher.
In addition to loneliness, remote work can lead to burnout. In a 2019 survey, 82% of remote tech workers in the U.S. felt burned out, 52% reported working longer hours than those in the office, and 40% feel they need to contribute more than their in-office colleagues. While these longer hours often mean higher productivity, they can quickly take a mental and emotional toll on your employees.
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With the combination of loneliness and burn out, anxiety and insecurities crop up. Agents try to prove their value as a remote worker, and well, they can feel left out! If this kind of emotional and mental toll isn’t managed, it can affect how your team works together.
Ok, so what do you do about it? What’s the key to managing conflict in the workforce?
Three key ways to help with managing conflict in the workforce:
1. Name and Normalize the Conflict
When you’re working remotely, it’s incredibly challenging to understand how others really feel about a situation. The core reason conflict is so emotionally charged is because it’s rooted in fear of the unknown. Think about when you’re in a dark room and you can barely make out the objects around you. Your imagination starts to go in all kinds of directions as you’re trying to grasp some semblance of familiarity.
The same thing happens when you’re in conflict. There are so many unknowns when it comes to the other person: how they’ll respond, whether you’ll be ignored, or if you’ll be taken seriously. On a remote team, even more unknowns and roadblocks can pile onto already stressful situations: different time zones and work schedules, cultural differences, language barriers, and so on. Situations get inflated.
As a manager, it’s important to embrace how normal conflict is. Be on top of identifying where remote communication isn’t working for your team.
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For example, maybe you’re on a Google Hangout for a team meeting. One agent, Patrick, questions another one of your agents, Ashley, about how she handled a customer interaction. You notice she responds defensively and her face communicates that she’s a bit irritated by the line of questioning.
Before you can step into the conflict, you have to call out the sore spot.
2. Be Curious about the Source of Conflict
Let’s take the situation with Ashley and Patrick to the next steps. It’s one thing to say “There was clearly conflict on that video call.” But, then you have to be curious about why. Identify some of the possible sources of conflict — maybe Ashley felt like Patrick was questioning her competency to perform well. Or, maybe she really wasn’t confident in how she handled the customer conversation, and she’s embarrassed Partick called her out without offering help, first.
Reach out to both Ashley and Patrick to address the moment. Demonstrate this curiosity without escalating the issue. Ask simply: “Hey, during that meeting you seemed a bit frustrated. Is everything ok?”
Showing you’re curious and giving your agents a chance to process can diffuse tension. They no longer have to sit at home stewing over the instance. But, someone noticed it enough to validate their emotions.
You can presume why Ashley was defensive. But, it’s important to meet her where she is. Maybe in reality something happened at home right before the phone call and she was bringing that frustration into work. Or, perhaps she and Patrick have tension in their friendship outside of work and that’s adding to her pain. Be willing to note the underlying key causes when managing conflict in your workforce.
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3. Create Spaces to Speak Sides
When conflict arises — whether through a rude email or a jab on a video call — it’s important to create spaces to find a resolution. Or else, one agent goes to her friends on Slack and the other chats with his pals to vent, and nothing gets resolved.
Once you’ve talked through both sides of what happened, hop on a video call (not an email thread or a direct message) and talk through the situation. It’s important you’re all on video. Seeing faces when discussing tough topics allows you to better read tone and emotion. It keeps your agents from speaking harshly through written communication and allows them to exhibit the emotion behind their words.
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When on the call, play facilitator by clearly talking about the tensions you witnessed. Give your agents space to speak to their feelings during the interaction. Ask them to state the needs they had in the moment, and why they felt that uncomfortable.
Maybe Patrick was genuinely curious about Ashley’s customer interaction because he had a customer reach out with a similar issue last week. He only wanted insight to see how she came to the right resolution. So, how could they both use this knowledge to better communicate next time?
In the end, be clear with your intentions when you try to resolve conflict. Have Ashley and Patrick explain how they’d like to communicate in the future. What practical action can the two take to communicate successfully? Setting these communication expectations improves the well-being of both agents.
Ultimately, Why Should You Care?
What’s one of the key benefits of better managing conflict in your call center workforce? It helps you become more approachable and builds trust with your team. Even when you and your agents aren’t working in the same room, your agents need to feel comfortable coming to you for support. With or without conflict on the table.
In a remote setting, being approachable allows your agents to ping you without hesitation or call you with questions and concerns. Show your team that if there’s a disagreement, there’s someone to turn to. You’ll set up follow up calls and really listen to their side of things. You’re there to solve problems faster, allowing productivity and creativity to flourish.