We often say that work is work, whether it’s done in an office or virtually. It’s also true that a great worker is a great worker, no matter whether they’re sat at a desk or in a coffee shop mainlining macchiatos. And even the best worker can sometimes have a bad day, or inadvertently cause a problem that gets others feeling tetchy.
In a lot of ways, virtual working already handles many of the interpersonal problems you can get in a team. If you’re not sat next to Tom and his annoying habit of clicking his pen, then you’re less likely to grind your teeth for weeks until finally exploding in a frenzy of frustration.
But having a team spread throughout the country, or even on different continents also brings with it the potential for misunderstanding or miscommunication. And just how do you solve disputes when you can’t haul all those involved to your office and have them talk it out?
Never fear. Another thing we often say is that you don’t need to learn new skills to manage a virtual team, you just need to think of ways to apply your existing skills in a remote environment. If you need a little more help than that? Just read on.
1. Prevention is Better than Cure
Being proactive is usually better than being reactive when it comes to complaints. A well-integrated team will know and trust each other enough that should a miscommunication occur it will be taken that way, and not as a mortal insult. The key to that is building relationships between members of your remote team.
We have some useful resources for you on the blog if you need help with that. It’s important that your team feels a shared sense of ownership to what they’re doing, and that they know each other’s capabilities. These things build a sense of trust, that will help keep your team from fracturing over minor complaints.
If you’re a regular reader of the blog you’ll know how important communication is. But it isn’t just the frequency of keeping in touch, it’s about the quality. This can mean arranging regular video calls so that your team can see the whites of each other’s eyes but also taking time out from work-related stuff to discuss differences and similarities.
Having a clear communication strategy can be a help, making sure that which channels to use and when are recorded; there’s nothing worse than someone repeatedly reporting something via the IT support board when it should really have been escalated to a phone call or email.
It’s up to you, as the team manager to cultivate a positive environment, where people feel free to air differing opinions without this being interpreted as a challenge or insult. Using Hanlon’s Razor can help; it’s a variant of Occam’s Razor that says, ‘Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.’ In other words, if someone doesn’t understand, explain rather than assuming they’re out to get you.
Have a virtual open door, so that your team knows that they can raise things with you at any point. This only needs to be the ability for them to send you a quick PM or email, just a private way that they can get in touch with you rather than having to raise things in the daily standup or Slack chat.
But, in even the most well adjust teams, things can go south. We’re a fully remote company ourselves, so rest assured you’re hearing the voice of experience. Here are our top tips for handling problems, if they arise.
2. Give Thinking Time
One of the beauties of asynchronous communication is that it gives you time to think before you ‘speak’. Of course, not everyone takes it (which can be a cause of disputes in the first place) but still the best way to make people aware that there is a problem is via an email. Lay out the problem in a non-challenging way and explain that you’ll be in touch soon to discuss. That way, they can take some time to think and understand what might have happened, before you talk.
3. Get Face to Face
The ideal way to find out what’s at the root of any disagreement is to sit down with those involved and talk it out. Obviously, that’s not easy when you’re miles apart, so the best substitute is a video call. Depending on the severity of the disagreement, you might want to talk to people individually first to find out what’s really going on and then bring them together for a facilitated discussion to find a way forward.
4. What if You’re the Problem?
As hard as it may be for our egos to allow, there are times when it isn’t our team but ourselves who have caused the problem. What happens then? Would your staff feel confident to approach you and let you know or would the issue fester?
One tactic that some teams have is to set up a boss-free Slack chat or forum, to allow staff to discuss issues without worrying about the career implications. They usually assign someone to be point person or liaison, who will take any threads that seem to be common and raise them with your directly.
5. Eliminate Chinese Whispers
The Shannon-Weaver Model of Communication puts people in the role of transmitter and receiver, understanding that what you say might not be understood in the same way by the person you’re talking to because we all filter things through our own experience and understanding. What this means is that communication is clearest when you know the person you’re talking to, and can target the message to them directly.
Where this gets complicated, is if you get into a Chinese-whispers situation. Bob comes to talk to you and tells you that Mary has a problem with Mike. You craft a lovely and supportive message designed to bring Mary and Mike together, but Bob delivers it in his own rather blunt fashion. Hijinx ensue. In other words, deliver your message yourself whenever possible.
6. Be Aggressive with Passive-Aggression
Passive-aggressive behavior is a team killer. It’s not overt enough to break the rules and lead to disciplinary procedure, but it wears people down. It’s unpleasant. It can also lead to escalation, and while that might make for some amusing Buzzfeed articles it really isn’t a respectful working environment.
Keep an eye out for passive-aggressive comments on the water cooler channel or during meetings. People who behave this way may be feeling insecure or threatened in some way but lack the courage to bring their concerns into the light. You can give them an opportunity to do that, by checking in with them.
7. Be Clear When You Hire Virtual Employee
Predictably, the way your team operates ultimately comes down to your recruitment decisions and processes. If you hire people who are great at their jobs and experienced in working remotely, you’re less likely to experience these kinds of conflicts. If you need help with that? Just give us a shout.