Resolving Conflict Within Your Virtual Team

More companies are beginning to see the benefits of letting employees work from remote locations, noting the increased employee satisfaction, reduced turnover and improved productivity from such an arrangement.

But telecommuting workers aren’t always a bed of roses for the manager who has to bring them together as a team, often dealing with their spats over who was told what, and when. They argue about who isn’t doing the job, who is obviously watching “Jersey Shore” instead of completing a project and who keeps missing deadlines.

If you think you may never be confronted with such a dilemma, think again. Gartner Inc., an information technology research and advisory company, says the number of worldwide remote workers will pass 46 million this year. Further, a recent World at Work survey found that the most common teleworkers are male, college graduates, age 40 and are knowledge workers.

So, the chances are pretty good you’re going to be called upon to manage a virtual team with critical missions. Unfortunately, the chances also are good that you’re going to face some tough challenges.

Among them will be the chronic problem of poor communication between team members. Because despite email, Skype, instant messaging and even Facebook, communicating effectively and accurately with teams who may be thousands of miles apart can pose problems.

Then, before you know it, one team member is upset because she says she wasn’t told a key piece of information, while another whines about the work ethic of someone else. A third jumps in with a complaint about what he believes to be a snippy e-mail from a colleague.

While these are all issues that might be easily and quickly resolved – or never even occur at all – if team members work face-to-face on a daily basis, they are issues that can easily get blown out of proportion  with virtual teams. You may not even be aware, for example, that some team members are stewing in their own juices about some real or imagined slight. You have no clue that co-workers thousands of miles apart believe one another to be guilty of some dastardly deeds.

But you find out when the team implodes, missing deadlines, snarling innovative ideas and spending more time hurling blame than working.

The critical issue for you as a manager is that this team is now unable to work effectively and productively – and that would hurt the bottom line. And your career.

In his book, “A Manager’s Guide to Virtual Teams,” Yael Zofi suggests that one way to resolve conflict among remote team members is with a conference phone call. He suggests a manager using this method should:

  • Set ground rules before the call, and make it clear you’ll serve as mediator. Tell team members you’re not going to take sides, but are there to help clear up misunderstandings.
  • Let each person state his or her ideas. Don’t agree or disagree, but make sure the information is clearly stated.
  • Compare the ideas of the team members. Address the main areas of conflict, such as problems with communication. Outline how people need to take responsibility for their actions.
  • State the actions that need to take place and get buy-in from team members. Don’t focus on individual personalities, but rather the steps that will be taken. “Remind teammates that they don’t have to be best friends, but they do need to work together,” Zofi writes.
  • Tie the end of the conversation back to the original goal of the call and what the team wants to achieve. “Although their approaches or styles might differ, people actually want similar things,” he writes. “They may argue on the call because they are ambitious or competitive…but most of the time people want to be part of something, they want to solve the problem, and they want to be successful.”

Anita Bruzzese

Anita Bruzzese is a syndicated columnist for Gannett/USA Today on workplace issues and the author of “45 Things You Do That Drive Your Boss Crazy.” She has been on the Today show, and quoted in publications such as O, The Oprah Magazine, Glamour, Self.com and BusinessWeek.com. Her website, 45things.com, is listed on the Forbes top 100 websites for women.

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