How to keep your virtual team running smoothly

Clashes over work are bound to arise in traditional offices, but when you scatter your team across the globe, innocent misunderstandings and perceived slights can snowball out of control.

Leadership training company VitalSmarts co-founders Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield found in a 2016 study that virtual coworkers are 2.5 times “more likely to perceive mistrust, incompetence, broken commitments, and bad decision making with distant colleagues than those who are co-located.”

In addition, in their survey of 1,025 people, 72% of those interviewed said they looked the other way when a peer did not pull his or her weight, 68% did nothing to intervene when they witnessed colleagues disrespecting others and 57% did nothing when colleagues bypassed key workplace protocols.

Grenny adds that people don’t say anything for months or weeks, and sometimes, not at all, leaving the problem to fester and grow into a toxic soup of resentment.

Here are some tips for raising red flags and nipping office conflicts in the bud, even if your team is operating on three different time zones.

Virtual teams face unique problems

When teams don’t operate in the same workspace, it can make battles over office hierarchy and organization even more challenging than usual.

In a 2005 article in Organizational Dynamics, researcher Yuhyung Shin wrote that “…conflict in virtual teams can be caused by ambiguity with respect to task, role, and responsibility as well as cultural differences, weak identity, low group cohesiveness, and lack of trust.” 

When people don’t properly understand their teammates or what they have to bring to the table, they can have trouble moving forward.

To avoid problems, Shin recommends fostering trust, redistributing or making tasks and expectations more clear, and hosting “diversity training or teambuilding programs” to boost everyone’s “conflict resolution skills.”

It’s hard to get teams to trust when they’re not in the same room

If your team members are located all over the world, there are ways to overcome knowledge and culture barriers so you can manage the collective workload. But that doesn’t always mean it’s easy.

“In face to face teams you can look at somebody and know where they are coming from. You have more knowledge of their background. It’s just easier to keep it in context,” Lindred Greer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, told Insights by Stanford Business.

When you haven’t interacted with a colleague much in person, it’s easy to assume the worst during a conflict, since you have a limited frame of reference for their personality.

Why do virtual workers default to confrontational attitudes? Blame human evolution, experts say.

“The reason so few of us speak up about sensitive issues is that we are wired for mistrust. More humans survived over the millennia by assuming ill intent on the part of others than the opposite. As a result, we have a conservative bias: When in doubt, play it safe. Hide in a bush. Pick up a rock. Keep silent,”Grenny wrote in an article for the Harvard Business Review.

The antidote? Make your team members feel safe, and they’ll come forward with concerns.

Make an effort to build relationships in a more social way, especially when your team is spread out.

In a 2013 Forbes article, MindGym co-founder and bestselling author Sebastian Bailey talked about the importance of strengthening connections with others, like asking about what other team members are doing that coming weekend or during holidays at the beginning of an online meeting.

“Team members miss out on the office banter, the working friendships that get us through a tough Tuesday,” Bailey writes.

Raising sensitive topics the right way can lead to healthy conversation

Wendy E. H. Corbett, a conflict resolution consultant for 3rd Party Advisors in Arizona, says that acknowledgement can go a long way at work. Once you’ve heard the other person out and shown them that you’ve tried to understand their point of view, the other person will probably feel more appreciated.

“If you’ve truly listened to another, sought clarification, grasped their underlying interests, and then been able to summarize their perspective, you will have greatly increased your chances of engendering honest engagement from a now ally rather than retrenching an opponent for your conflict du jour,” Corbett told U.S. News & World Report.

Whether it’s a fight over the A/C level or who gets to sit closest to the window, when managing a tough conversation at work, it’s best to deal with the problem quickly and directly.

“Your immediate response to conflict situations is essential,” according to the Guide to Managing Human Resources from UC Berkeley.

First, acknowledge that there is a problem. Employees appreciate honest and transparent managers who are willing to listen to their concerns without judgment.

It can help to meet with sparring staffers separately to prevent the confrontation from getting more heated.

Once everyone is on the same page about the nature of the problem, look for common areas of agreement, including what employees’ worst fears are about the issue.

Look for ways to solve the problem that will meet both of your staffers’ needs, and look for buy-in from both parties. Set out a course of action to resolve the issue and make some deadlines for check-ins to see if the resolution has been working.

If you still can’t reach resolution, you may need to seek assistance from another department, such as the ombudsman, or a disciplinary body.