Managing conflict whilst home working

Working from home can create challenges for ourselves and also how we interact with the people that we work with. As we learn to adapt to our new working environment, we spoke to Catriona Davies from Resolution Mediation Scotland, a specialist in conflict resolution and mediation, about some tips we can all use to manage conflict during these times.

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6 min read

Managing conflict whilst home working

Tension between people in work is natural and to be expected – we can’t get along with everyone we meet in life. Yet within a work context there is often an expectation that we do. Throw in a global pandemic which has created worries about their family’s health, perhaps financial concerns and huge restrictions on our usual freedom of movement and you can easily see how there may be greater conflict within your teams. Now more than ever, we need to be proactive in managing conflict within our workplace, to avoid escalation and within that, fracturing our teams.

What is conflict management?

Conflict management is a vital skill that involves handling confrontations tactfully and constructively. Our aim is to create a positive result from disputes and disagreements that occur between people in the workplace, whilst also reducing their likelihood of occurring. The goal of conflict management is not to eliminate disputes and disagreements completely. The aim is to create a culture of constructive conflict whereby people have respectful discussions, negotiate and seek compromise. Discussions which encourage us to think differently and consider improvements or different ways of working or being. Destructive conflict is when arguments are intense and unresolved. They begin to escalate beyond the work context and those involved begin to avoid each other or discussions become personal.

Causes of conflict at work during Covid-19 and beyond

These unprecedented times mean that all of us are juggling additional restrictions and responsibilities as I said previously. When we are feeling emotionally well and resilient, we are in a much stronger place to manage our own emotions and crucially our reactions to others. When our emotional resilience is lower or under stress, our ability to manage how we respond to others, also reduces. Given we are all being stretched in one form or another, this creates almost the perfect storm for conflict - both new conflicts may emerge and existing conflicts may be exacerbated. Of course, added within all of that, are the usual causes of workplace conflict. Key areas to consider are:

  • Differences in personality – people come from different backgrounds or cultures and have their own beliefs and values. A lack of understanding or acceptance of these differences is an easy source of conflict, and may create tension between people who may otherwise work well together.
  • Differences in styles of working – people often expect their colleagues to work in a similar way as them and negate to see that each of us works differently according to our values, skills and experiences. Ultimately, this can create frustration and may hinder the completion of projects and tasks.
  • Miscommunication or misunderstandings – it’s easy for conflicts to become deep-seated or escalate when a misunderstanding remains unsolved for a prolonged period of time. Avoidant behaviour can begin to take place, further exacerbating any ongoing miscommunication.
  • Poor management – As the leader or manager within your team or company, you have a tremendous amount of influence on how contented and able a person feels in their role. Without a strong leader, people lack direction and goals and therefore motivation, which leads to dissatisfaction and acrimony towards management.

Some tips for managing conflict

The key aims of managing conflict as I earlier, are to prevent conflicts escalating and also to intervene within a conflict to resolve it an at early stage.

Below are some tips to support your staff and ensure that your team are able to continue working effectively, whilst working from home.

  • Do a conflict risk assessment – Often this can sound more complex than what is required! Simply put, be aware and observe your team’s behaviour. Look for signs of conflict or disagreement on a regular basis. Where a project isn’t progressing as it should, is it a technical issue or are there issues within the team? This is particularly important when people are working from home, as you aren’t able to observe behaviour in the workplace. What you can observe is behaviour within video calls, the tone of emails and observe any changes in demeanour when talking to your staff.
  • Don’t ignore it – One of the key reasons why conflicts often escalate, is that they are ignored, in the hope the situation will resolve itself. More often than not, the issues become harder to tackle, the longer they are left. Early intervention is absolutely key in conflict management. Aim to deal with any problems, as soon as you are aware of them to avoid escalation.
  • Ensure staff feel able to raise concerns around conflict – Disputes may not be raised with you, if staff feel that you are unapproachable or if they worry their issues won’t be taken seriously. Encourage open dialogue with you and create a culture which values open and honest discussions. Make sure your staff know when you are available, whilst you are working from home. When and how should they contact you to discuss any concerns?
  • Promote and value differences – Create a positive culture towards differing opinions, lifestyles, and attitudes. Businesses thrive with such a supportive culture and create an environment where discriminatory behaviour is not acceptable. Without such a positive culture, it may be during this time, that the gaps in your companies interpersonal and team dynamics, begin to crack.
  • Learn to listen actively – Good listening skills are a fundamental to resolving conflicts. Try to ensure that when issues are raised, you’re able to have a discussion via video calling, rather than on the phone. This will enable you to observe body language, eliminate distractions for you both and be able to respond in a more empathic manner. Ensure that you listen without pre-conceived ideas, seek clarification through careful questioning and ensure you have a clear understanding of what you have heard by summarising the key points as you have heard them. Often when we feel truly heard, it can be in of itself a transformative tool. Encourage your staff to do the same.
  • Stay calm and in control – Take a deep breath, mentally remove yourself from the situation, and don’t argue back or become aggressive. Remember, as a manager or leader you’re setting an example for the rest of your team.
  • Ensure you see the person and not the problem – Often when there is an issue we can focus on the nature of the problem and forget about the people that are involved. What else is going on for those people just now? Are you aware of their personal circumstances/challenges just now, which may have changed due to Covid-19?
  • Seek to understand the whole issues – it is vitally important that you seek to hear the version of events from all those involved. It may be very different! Promote tolerance and understanding, and aim to reach a solution or compromise. Remember there may be more than one way forward or solution. Ensure that those involved in the dispute, are also involved in creating the solution.
  • Use a registered mediator – Finally, if having tried a number of the above tips, the situation is escalating or is unresolved, use a mediator who is registered with Scottish Mediation. This ensures they have the necessary training and skills to resolve the situation. Early use of a mediator is recommended, to avoid views and positions becoming entrenched and creating reputational and financial damage to both your business and to its staff.

Ultimately, the key throughout this period of disruption and change to our lives, is to ensure that we support each other through this period. Ensuring that our staff and business are in a secure position to flourish, when restrictions ease and life reverts to a new norm.

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