Conflict in a Virtual World
Employee Engagement

Conflict in a Virtual World
Getting the basics right

Ever receive a text message that was worded normally, but seemed rude? Did you find yourself thinking about it obsessively afterwards? Now consider how easy it is to get upset in a virtual setting, where most critique is sent as an email or message. With hybrid now firmly the norm, not only does a lack of physical interaction create challenges for employees who may misinterpret constructive criticism, it creates a problem for managers who must resolve conflict virtually.

Typically, people determine other’s intentions and how much they understand, through social cues and body language. It can affect the entire team’s productivity and relationships.¹ Understanding body language is the ability to read what a co-worker means without them verbalising it. At work, we’ll also often learn different people’s non-verbal cues. For example leg-shaking can be a sign of nervousness, but your boss might do it when he’s excited about a project. In remote teams, employees have much less opportunity to learn co-workers’ verbal habits and non-verbal cues.

Unsurprisingly, virtual teams have more conflict. Perhaps because employees lack information and context? Colleagues are more likely to take disagreement personally when challenges arrive in their inbox instead of the neighbouring desk. This is because disagreement can lack context, nuance, and facial expressions. To top that off, employees may lack history, so critique may be more difficult to digest. Task conflict transforms into something that threatens a team’s performance because it digresses into issues outside the task at hand.²

Team conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Even the most effective teams have to deal with internal contention. This is because high-performing individuals are predisposed to contradictory tensions, like cooperation and rivalry, or trust and vigilance. Rivalry is uncomfortable, but it weeds out inefficiencies. High performers are also naturally competitive, so disallowing competitive behaviour denies them expressing a part of who they are. And this can make teams feel psychologically unsafe.

5 Dysfunctions of a team

To channel conflict the right way, especially in a virtual world, we need to understand where team dysfunction comes from. This is best explained by Patrick Lencioni’s dysfunctions model. In it, Lencioni explains that all team dysfunction is rooted in the absence of trust. This is pertinent in the virtual world because remote teams may have never met one another outside a virtual chat room or occasional video call. Not trusting one’s colleague means not trusting their guidance or feedback. This snowballs into unproductive conflict and tension.

Get the basics right

Virtual conflict can be difficult to navigate, but it promises big wins for your teams. Where do you start?

1. Build trust through collaboration

As a manager, it’s necessary for you to create an environment where it’s easy to build relationships. You should know the strengths and skills of your team best. Strategically create teams for projects that require lots of back and forth. This makes people collaborate and creates opportunities for them to trust each other with various deliverables. Friendships may also result from this, as colleagues can be open and therefore vulnerable when they are experiencing difficulties.

2. Use online tools to your advantage

It’s true that video calls for things that could’ve been in an email are unproductive. But, detailed feedback, progress check-ins and one-to-ones should happen via video call or in person. Online brainstorming sessions using whiteboards can also bring new ideas to the table and encourage friendly debate over possible problems. This helps create a more ‘human’ interaction, with facial expressions and social cues, so ideas and feedback don’t get lost in translation.

3. Build positivity into online communications

This can be small or large-scale. Kind gestures like a simple ‘thank you’ message after a meeting to show their input is valued is effective. Other ways to engage team members is to send them interesting articles (with no task attached), or occasional light-hearted videos.

4. Allow space to voice concerns

Encourage open communication by setting aside regular catch ups. This helps monitor employee performance and gives them space to air any concerns they have about interpersonal or task conflict. Hearing these also allows team leaders to display strong leadership by prioritising respect above all. Others may follow suit.

5. Get Together

A team off-site is the perfect opportunity to get face time, build on virtual relationships and perhaps even create the conditions for serendipity. The goal isn’t only to make hybrid or remote working perfect, it’s also about making the customer experience perfect. Togetherness helps strengthen the good and overcome the shortcomings.

The SHAPE Survey assesses various factors, such as team harmony, that affect Employee Engagement in workplace. It gives employees, managers and CEOs an in-depth view of team and company engagement, so they can tailor interventions accordingly.

__1__Indeed Editorial Team, 2020. Understanding body language and the workplace. Indeed Career Guide. Available at: [Accessed July 27, 2022].

__2__Peterson, D., 2014. Lindred Greer: Why virtual teams have more conflict. Stanford Graduate School of Business. Available at: [Accessed July 27, 2022].

Employee Engagement