Poor communication is destroying your virtual team. 5 Steps to easily manage virtual team conflict

Takeaway: This blog post highlights ways to improve your communication, productivity, and business results by managing conflict as a remote worker or leader of a virtual team. 

You’re Not Alone Navigating Virtual Team Conflict 

Working from home, managing a virtual team, or simply working with a variety of people across time zones can be a challenge. Communication is often the biggest obstacle. If you can learn to overcome that hurdle, everyone on your team and your business will benefit. 

I spent 10+ years working in Fortune 500 corporate sales and engineering roles. When working on a remote team, I learned that you spend more time hours dealing with confusing messages, task conflicts and frustrating disagreements than you’d ever imagined. 

The types of conflict varied but the need for effective communication and proper use of communication technologies came up repeatedly. It seemed that virtual communications and remote work had a different company culture – faster pace, more task related conflicts and days never ended. It seemed that the remote company culture allowed for instant messaging and virtual leaders sending work to direct reports “off-hours” and negative consequences for not being “always on” 

The Skill That Helped Me Find Win-Win Solutions 

My “road warrior” sales mentors, taught me to “read the room” to understand how my messaging landed with customers and internal team members. This meant being present so I could read facial expressions, body language, and potential conflicts.  

The critical need for me was having a process to let go of the last meeting, call, email so I can clearly take in what’s happening in the room. It took me a while to learn to get out of my head and stay in the conversation. I’m not too proud to seek help and a few courses outside of work to build my ability to focus. I got the most profound shift using a centering technique to shift my emotions back to neutral before important conversations.  

If you don’t have a go-to centering technique, check out the free “Heartmath Experience” video course and learn the centering technique that helped me.

Here’s my affiliate link to access the course and start shifting your energy and focus: https://swiy.io/hmexperience 

It’s a completely different process to “read the room” when the meeting was a phone or video call instead of a face-to-face meeting. In short, when you work remote you may find yourself using more words than in-person conversations. Why? Because others can’t “read the room” without the proper context and understanding expectations.  

Putting in the Work to Save Time and Productivity  

I developed a conflict resolution strategy to ensure that my team meetings had affective conflicts that sped up my project team and lowered our collective stress levels, even though we were often a team of peers and I had no direct authority. Many of the conflicts virtual team leaders deal with come from communication issues and successful teams have processes to provide constructive feedback to bolster team performance in real-time. 

Remote business communication requires new habits, more clear verbal communication, and commitment to trying new things. I developed processes to ensure the team had the same meaning and intentions for the project. I created a simple reliable process for meeting prep, follow-up, and scheduled live conversations to cut down on confusion and keep my projects successful. More details on that soon. 

Because people knew what was expected, they showed up prepared and we had productive meetings. Because my people knew I would listen without an agenda, they shared way more information which helped me land more deals and build deeper client relationships. 

I can’t keep these remote work lessons to myself, knowing that many professionals are still struggling to adapt to remote work. It’s normal to struggle with virtual team vs traditional team dynamics. Remote work requires a different set of communication skills and you need to train your mind to be compassionate towards yourself. 

5 Steps to Manage Virtual Team Conflict and Improve Productivity While Working Remotely 

Step 1: Be clear on expectations and communicate them clearly 

 Make sure that all members of the team understand exactly what is expected from them. If you are calling a meeting, make sure to include a brief agenda, backstory and decision to be discussed so people can be prepared. 

As a remote worker, at times it can feel like you’re on your own. Often left to interpret the meaning of emails and texts because you can’t tap a coworker on the shoulder for advice or the backstory to explain the behaviors of others. Save them the time and pain with clearer communications upfront. 

Step 2: Have an open mind 

If you want to manage virtual team conflict and improve communication, you need to be open-minded. When you get confused or frustrated, try to see things from different perspectives.  

Don’t assume others have the worst intentions. Think about what else could be going on. Think about who else you can reach out to resolve the challenge. The more often you practice this skill, you will be able to see the different ways that you can achieve your goals. 

In corporate work, everyone, even the CEO, has a “boss” expecting good results from them. I have found that asking others about the big challenges they are trying to solve and offering to help them meet that goal lowers conflict.  

The pushback my private coaching clients give me when I mention helping others is that they barely have time to think, let alone do someone else’s work. I’ve been there and want you to know that the time you spend helping others comes back to you in the form of better productivity and new opportunities. 

Here’s what I discovered when I was working with virtual teams across 3 continents and 5 different time zones. When you shine your light, you expand possibilities. The help you offer to frustrated colleagues doesn’t mean you have to take some of their workloads. It’s often simple things like offering to introduce them to someone they don’t know on the team who can help or sending an existing resource.  

There are so many upsides of helping others in this way – you feel better knowing you tried your best, your coworker feels more supported, and in some cases, your savvy problem-solving skills will be talked about and help you get pulled into higher-profile projects that lead to promotions, raises and bonuses. Or not, if you’re in an organization that doesn’t reward your talent and innovation. You won’t know until you try.   

Step 3: Don’t get defensive 

If you want to manage virtual team conflict and improve communication, you need to remain calm and don’t get defensive when someone talks to you about your work. When people talk to you about your work, they are usually trying to help you improve it. So, if you are defensive, then nothing is going to change. 

For years, I have used a centering practice called the Heartmath Heart Lock-In Technique to shift my attention and energy to genuine positive emotions.

Here’s an affiliate link to learn more about Heartmath’s tools.  I’m a certified Heartmath Coach/Mentor so feel free to ask me questions.  

Step 4: Learn from mistakes 

 As long as we are human, we will make mistakes at work. Imperfection is human. I’ve learned the hard way the only way to break old thought patterns is to be kind to yourself and take courageous action.

It’s normal to make mistakes.

It’s normal to be afraid of what could go wrong.

It’s outstanding to take imperfect action and get new results. 

Say you make a misstep and send the wrong message to a coworker. Acknowledge it happened (no excuses), say “I apologize” and fix it. You build trust when you show you care about the other people on your team. 

Then release your expectations. Don’t expect to be forgiven instantly or for their mood to improve. Do your best and give them the time and space they need to sort themselves out.  

Step 5: Be Attentive to Your Team’s Human Needs 

When working virtually you spend up to 85% of your time doing collaborative work on email, IM, phone, and video calls. You can’t rely on spontaneous hallway conversations or overhearing a heated discussion to move your projects forward. 

Research shows that the most efficient collaborators are more intentional with their time. Collaboration demands make people feel like they have to be “Always On”. Meetings and instant messages are happening earlier in the morning and later into the evening than ever before. 

Often this extra work is invisible to leaders and may cause individuals to suffer career derailment, burnout, and poor well-being which limits the organization’s efforts to adapt and innovate, according to Harvard Business Review. 

 Actions to Reduce Conflict and the Distractions it Creates

Here are a few ways you could use to proactively reduce conflict and increase team productivity: 

  • Put regular meetings on calendars to support team problem solving and reduce the back-and-forth email, text, and instant messages 
  • Mute notifications after hours so you and your team have time to recharge and prevent burnout 
  • Schedule blocks of time to get focused work done and turn off notifications for all your collaboration tools during that time 
  • Do your best to reject the “Always On” burnout culture by expecting people to spend time away from work and not to message them outside of business hours 

If you want to learn more about how you can increase your remote work productivity and grow your career at the same time, go to moreproductivework.com to pick up your free “B.O.O.S.T. Guide to Resilience and Productivity: A Busy Professional’s Cheat Sheet to Work with More Confidence, Clarity and Joy”. The guide is based on my #1 Amazon New Release Bestselling Book and 10+ years working remotely on Fortune 500 global teams. 

*Affiliate Disclosure: I may receive payments if you purchase products using the links I offer. I only offer products that I and professionals I trust recommend. 

*Outcomes Disclaimer: You are solely responsible for your own moves and decisions. The evaluation and use of our suggestions and services should be based on your own due diligence. Individual results will always vary and your results will depend entirely on your individual capacity, work ethic, business skills and experience, level of motivation, diligence in applying advice, the normal and unforeseen risks of doing business, and other factors. You are the expert of your life. 

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