Work-Based Conflict during Covid-19:
Two Experts Weigh in on the Causes and the Solutions
In 2020 even workplace conflict has gone remote. Connecting to our workplaces from our home offices has done nothing to reduce workplace conflict. As a result conflict resolution and mediation consultants are seeing an uptick in the number of enterprises reaching out to them for support.
The increase comes as no surprise to two experts B2BNN checked in with.
“A lot of people are working longer hours because there is no division between work life and home life right now,” says Catharine MacDonald, a counsellor and consultant with Atypical Works.
“Workplace conflict, because it is online, is easier to avoid,” says MacDonald. “If you were in the workforce seeing someone every day, you would have to find some way to deal with what is annoying you. The current situation lets people avoid dealing with people they don’t like, but the conflict doesn’t go away.”
Sarah Turl, a mediator who practices through Empowered Results Conflict Consulting would agree.
“In normal times, if you have a tough time with Diane in accounting, you would walk down the hall and talk to her,” says Turl. “Now, you can’t do that. So, you send an email to Diane and it might have a low level emotional charge, but you can’t control the tone Diane reads that in, you don’t know what kind of day Diane has been having. So when she responds to your email, she has CC’d people and then when you respond to her, you CC even more people. Those email chains are often the first sign that managers get that conflict is happening. It often doesn’t become apparent until people are trying to get others on their side. They are assembling their armies.”
Are there ways to prevent workplace conflict from becoming an all-out attack?
Consider these tips from MacDonald and Turl:
- Chill out
Business resilience demands flexibility. We are all working through such different circumstances that it is impossible to meet the same expectations for both managers and employees.
“I really think companies need to chill out,” says MacDonald. “Companies and their management need to have a vision of what their employees need to achieve rather than how and what time of day they achieve it. If you don’t have that vision to serve as proof that they are getting their work done, then everyone just feels like they are powerless to their job. For a lot of people, this is a very good opportunity to learn how to be slightly different and develop a new take on their roles. You are going to have an inner conflict if you try to play the same role you did before the pandemic and try to pretend everything is the same.”
- Learn the difference between checking in and micro-managing
A daily check in from your manager should not be part of the pandemic tendency to over-schedule meetings. It also shouldn’t feel like an interruption or a forced report. What’s the difference between letting someone know you’re checking in on them with good intentions rather making them feel micro-managed?
“It’s about trust,” says MacDonald. “Feelings of being micromanaged come from perceptions that people think they are just not working. The suspicion of time theft is absolutely offensive, especially when you are talking about white collar professionals who work more than forty hours a week.”
In contrast, a friendly check in should leave employees feeling supported and heard.
“No one can really replicate the level of checking-in you would normally have doing a walk around, both visually and energy-wise in the office,” says Turl. “Now, it’s about reminding your employees that the line of communication is open. If you don’t have that check in, you are not attuned to the kind of micro-aggressions that might be getting out of hand. It can be as simple as asking, ‘How are things going?’ to remind people that you are there to help. Just remember they are under the same level of stress as anyone else.”
- Pick up the phone (Yes, you too millennial!)
Even people who hate phone calls agree that they are more productive.
“How many young people get into conflicts trying to figure out the intent of an emoji?” Turl says. “Sometimes millennials just need to meet people where they are at and pick up the phone. There is a hierarchy of communication and written is at the bottom. Empathy loves eye contact, so if you can’t talk face to face, video is your next best option. And, because people are getting Zoom burn out, phone calls are next best because you can hear tone. The worst thing you can do is just send a message.”
It’s important not to forget that there is a difference between having a hard conversation and having a back and forth, Turl urges.
“Email is just a back and forth and when we use it we are losing the richness of conversation and its nuances. People think it’s easier to understand written messaging, but not when stress levels and patience are already thin, they are more likely to lead to misunderstandings of tone and intention. People might feel safer using written messaging, but I have yet to hear ‘using email really helped me.’”
In the end, clear and open communication is what humanizes everyone involved in conflict.
“We are all so highly stressed, we’re all defaulting to negative intentions,” says Turl. “The intentions might have been positive, but with all the stress and negative energy going around, we are more prone to write people off as meaning to hurt someone and that causes a lot of conflict. No one starts out with the intention of ruining someone else’s day.”
While resolving conflict is hard work, especially when patience and empathy are in such short supply, it may be the way to a better future in the workplace.
“Managing conflict is hard and we all need to recognize that it is hard,” says MacDonald. “Cut your employees some slack, cut your managers some slack and make sure all the lines of communications are open. It was time for more honesty and more transparency and this time has made creating that a necessity. That’s probably better for the long term.”
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