The past year and a half has forced many businesses to change the way their teams are structured—specifically, in shifting from fully in-person operations to a hybrid work environment. And, like with any change, there have been some bumps along the way—particularly when it comes to conflict.
“As businesses and teams shifted from office-only to remote-only or hybrid work, the way things were done transformed—and continues to transform,” says Dr. Sarah Skidmore, DSL, MA, organizational consultant and author of Stronger People Leaders. “And any time transformation occurs, there is an opportunity for conflict.”
But if you want your team to thrive, it’s important to understand how to effectively manage that conflict as a leader, help your team work through challenges, and empower your employees to do their best work. “Conflict management is undoubtedly one of the key leadership skills for long-term sustainable team success,” says Skidmore.
But how, exactly, do you do that? Let’s take a look at five must-know conflict management strategies for hybrid teams:
Set Clear Expectations
A lack of clarity can lead to issues in hybrid teams; if employees don’t know who is responsible for what or what’s expected of them, both individually and as a team, it can cause conflict.
So, if you want to better manage conflict on your team, make sure you’re setting crystal clear expectations from the get-go—particularly if your team is still adjusting to working in a hybrid environment.
“If the hybrid team is a new team, have a kick off meeting and talk through roles, responsibilities and potential areas for conflict,” says Erica Keswin, workplace strategist, consultant, and author of Bring Your Human to Work.
For example, one conflict that’s typical in hybrid teams is remote workers feeling like they don’t have the same access to opportunities as employees that work in the office. But setting expectations about opportunities will be shared with the team and how team members, remote or in-person, should express interest in those opportunities can help keep conflict to a minimum when a new project comes up.
For example, you might create a Trello board with cards for each project tasks and responsibility; notify all employees, both remote and in-person, that the board is ready for their review; then give them 72 hours to explore the project and, if interested, add themselves to the relevant card before you assign final tasks.
The point is, getting everyone on the same page about what they’re responsible for, what their colleagues are responsible for, and how the hybrid team is going to function moving forward can help to avoid any potential misunderstandings—and can prevent unnecessary conflict.
Create An Equal Playing Field For In-Person and Remote Employees
As mentioned, remote employees often don’t feel like they get equal access to opportunities as their in-person counterparts, which can lead to conflict. But that’s not the only inequality that can drive conflict on hybrid teams; often, remote employees feel like they’re not getting an equal experience to employees that work in the office.
Take meetings, for example. Face-to-face communication is typically easier and more seamless than virtual conversations. So, when you have employees attending a meeting both in person and remotely, it can be easy for in-person employees to dominate the conversation—and remote workers might find it hard to contribute, ask questions, or interject with their opinions. In this situation, remote workers may start to feel resentful—which can not only lead to them not participating during meetings, but can also drive conflict among team members.
That’s why if you want to better manage conflict on your hybrid team, it’s important to create an equal playing field for your employees—regardless of where they’re working.
So, for the meeting example, you might have “employees in the office also call into the meeting remotely to equalize the experience,” says Keswin.
The more you can create an “equal playing field” for your remote and in-person employees, the less likely it is you’ll run into conflict (particularly conflict over employee experience)—and the more effective your team will be as a result.
Recognize All Employees’ Contributions
It’s easy to give recognition to employees that share your office space via a “great job on that project!” as you walk by their desk. Or maybe you intentionally schedule an impromptu lunch meeting to chat about their progress and goals, making in-person employees feel valued, appreciated, and like their contributions matter.
But those spontaneous opportunities for recognition and acknowledgement don’t exist for remote employees. “There’s a risk of remote employees being ‘out of sight, out of mind,’” says Keswin. This can make remote workers feel undervalued or like they’re not getting the same recognition as in-person employees—which can lead to conflict on the team. “Leaders need to make sure the value and contribution of remote workers are highlighted to [leadership] and the rest of the team,” says Keswin.
But you also don’t want to tip the scales too far in the other direction and neglect to recognize your in-person employees.
If you want to keep conflict to a minimum, you need to be deliberate about recognizing your employees—both remote and in-person. Host a weekly meeting where you call out employee wins—and make sure the wins are balanced between remote and in-person employees. During your meeting, ask each of your in-person employees to recognize a remote employee that went above and beyond to support the team—and vice versa.
The more recognition, appreciation, and acknowledgement you give to all employees, the more your entire team (not just in-person employees!) will feel recognized, appreciated, and acknowledged. This can lead to a more united, cohesive feel on your team—which can help to keep conflict at bay.
Spend Time Building Trust
If there’s no trust within your hybrid team—both in leadership and in fellow team members—you can pretty much guarantee there’s going to be conflict. “Lack of trust leads to increased conflict,” says Keswin.
If you want to effectively manage conflict with your team, building trust is a must—and that means investing time in getting to know your team.
When you understand your team members and how they function, you can foster better interactions, both with leadership and other team members—which can lead to a higher level of trust within your hybrid team.
“By understanding how each person naturally communicates, what causes them stress, and their preferences for how they work, you can more effectively minimize and manage conflict in a hybrid environment,” says says David Kolbe, CEO of Kolbe Corp, a company that provides professional assessments and works with organizations to identify employee strengths and empower team performance.
For example, let’s say you have two employees. One is a remote employee that prefers to do work in focused blocks of time and struggles to get back on track following interruptions. The other works in the office and likes to stay in near-constant communication via email, Slack, and other messaging platforms. Because they have such different work styles, pairing those two team members together for a project could leave both employees feeling frustrated—and ultimately, could cause conflict on the team.
But if you understand both employees’ work styles, you can create workflows that play to each employees’ strengths—and minimize frustration and conflict on both sides. For example, by pairing each team member with another employee that better matches their work style or setting parameters around communication that feel manageable to both employees.
The bottom line? “Managing conflict comes down to understanding yourself and your team members,” says Skidmore—and that includes on hybrid teams.
When you have team members working in different locations, communication can be a challenge. In-person employees might spend the bulk of their day talking to their co-worker in the next cubicle over—while remote workers struggle to form a real connection with their team members.
But teams can’t function without effective communication—and if you don’t deliberately foster communication between team members, both remote and in-person, you’re setting the stage for conflict within your hybrid team.
That’s why, if you want your hybrid team to function harmoniously, you need to create opportunities for frequent communication.
Look for ways to improve communication between remote and in-person team members. For example, “remote workers worry about being excluded from spontaneous workplace conversations,” says Keswin. “Leaders can create digital ‘water cooler’ moments by having a dedicated digital hang out space or a random roulette where employees, both in-person and remote, are paired up for a Zoom lunch.”
Or maybe you notice there are frequent miscommunications between a remote employee and an in-person employee; in that situation, you might schedule a meeting with those two team members to talk through why they’re struggling to communicate—and create a communication plan to foster better communication moving forward.
The better your hybrid team communicates, the less conflict they (and you!) will have to deal with—and, when conflict does come up, the better they’ll be able to work through it.
Use These Tips To Better Manage Conflict Within Your Hybrid Team
Managing conflict is an essential part of effective leadership. And now that you know how to effectively manage conflict within your hybrid team, you have the tools you need to foster connection, collaboration, and harmony with your team members—no matter where they’re working.
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