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Managing conflict in a hybrid workplace

By Sara Keli

Hybrid workplaces are the new norm.

According to research from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 33% of people are keen to continue with working from home arrangements. And it’s not just employees who have embraced the hybrid work life. Organisations, such as NAB, are reconfiguring their workplaces in recognition of this fundamental shift to the way, or rather, where we work.

However, as much as both employees and businesses alike are prepared to embrace hybrid as the future, that’s not to say it’s not without its challenges. As we all navigate this path together, there are bound to be hurdles in the road. Hurdles like conflict.

Managing conflict in a hybrid scenario may not be as difficult as you might think. By understanding the pressure points for conflict, you can take steps to handle the situation.

Conflict is healthy and normal

First up, it’s important to acknowledge and accept that conflict is healthy and normal. It’s certainly not something that is unique to hybrid working.

Marni Cook is an executive coach who has worked with leaders across both the public and private sectors. Conflict in the workplace is something she has seen time and time again over the years.

“Conflict is absolutely healthy,” says Cook. “This is something I teach in the Dealing with Conflict Confidently Masterclass. The reality is, we can’t build a high performing team unless we go through a conflict stage.

“If that conflict isn’t handled well, it can embed poor behaviours in the team. But we shouldn’t shy away from it. Acknowledge that there will be conflict and equip yourself with the skills you need to deal with it effectively.”

4 common hybrid conflict scenarios

While working from home isn’t something new, the scale at which team members now do some or all of their work from home certainly is. Cook says that when conflict arises in these situations, it’s so easy for managers to jump to blame the hybrid situation for causing the conflict. But that’s not necessarily the case.

“Often the issues that come up aren’t actually new or caused by the working arrangements. Usually, it’s the case that the issues already existed and the hybrid setup has only served to shine a spotlight on them.”

While conflict can arise due to personality differences, Cook explains that there are four common scenarios that can be the root cause of conflict for hybrid teams.

1. Lack of role clarity

If your team members don’t have clarity on their role and what is expected of them, that’s never a good thing. And it’s something that will almost certainly lead to some level of conflict.

Lack of role clarity is a symptom of a communication breakdown. This is where conflict takes hold.  

“When people don’t understand their role, it’s always an issue… but it’s more of an issue if they are working remotely some or all of the time,” says Cook. “It’s critical that every member of your team is crystal clear on what their role is and what you expect of them.

“Some managers feel that being face-to-face in the workplace gives them a greater sense of control. However, it’s a false sense of control that will lead to compliance at best. An engaged team where creativity and innovation thrive is built on empowering people in their roles, no matter where they are working.”

Cook also asserts that this lack of role clarity can be caused when managers have difficulty managing the result rather than the process.

“So often we don’t have the right KPIs and metrics in place. If someone completes a job quickly, they are often rewarded with more work. When there is a lack of clarity around what KPIs are, it can build resentment within the team and also between the employee and line management.”

2. Using the wrong communication tool

We’re so fortunate to have so many methods of communication available to us today. It’s these communication tools that enable hybrid workplaces in the first place. But communication overload can also be a breeding ground for conflict.

“Communication can be so much harder when we are using a variety of different channels,” explains Cook. “In a single workday, we probably use email, video conference, phone call, SMS, face-to-face meetings and other internal corporate communication channels.

“Problems arise when you don’t choose the right tool for the job. If you have a really urgent message to communicate, email might not be the best choice, particularly when the recipient might be filtering through another 250 emails they have received that day.”

Misunderstandings, and ultimately conflict, can be avoided by choosing the right communication tool. What might normally be a quick conversation with a colleague at their desk needs to be replaced with the most appropriate communication method to get the message across clearly.

3. Avoiding resolving issues

It’s hard to avoid conflict resolution when you are working alongside a person every day. Behind a screen, it’s a different story. But if the conflict remains unresolved, it will fester.

“It’s that classic scenario where the conflict builds because you don’t address it,” says Cook. “It is absolutely easier to avoid things in a hybrid situation.

“For someone with an avoidance conflict style, it’s a perfect storm of sorts. They will follow their avoidance tendencies and the conflict will snowball as the unresolved conflict leads to greater conflict.”

The solution here is to create an environment of openness, honesty and accountability, where employees are empowered to own their actions. Ultimately, it comes back to accepting conflict as part of a normal and healthy workplace.

4. Lack of visibility

Critics of remote working argue that it makes the work of team members invisible. According to Cook, this criticism is often misplaced and unfair. If you wouldn’t look over your team member’s shoulders while they are working in the office, why is there a need to (virtually) do that while they are working remotely?

“There is a delicate balance of making sure there is enough meeting time for the team to connect, e.g. through video conference, but also ensuring that the meeting time is fit for purpose, not just about keeping an eye on the team.

“The role of the leader in these situations is to act like a coach. Rather than checking on the team members for compliance, it’s about checking in with them to see what support they need. You can empower them to own their tasks by asking lots of questions and giving them access to information in real time. Remember that compliance isn’t the goal. The goal is an engaged and high performing team. ”

With the right communication systems and support structures in place, the perception of working from home as being invisible can be eliminated.

Marni Cook provides tips on managing conflict
Marni Cook

A leader’s role in managing conflict

There is a common thread running through these scenarios and that’s the role of the manager in building a team culture of engagement.

Cook believes that the increasing prevalence of hybrid workplaces is highlighting the great divide between managers and leaders.

“Managers prefer to be more hands on and actively observe their employees. Leaders create actively engaged teams.

“In the hybrid world, engagement is even more important. When you have an engaged team, they are productive, happy and more likely to do the right thing when no one is looking, i.e. in a hybrid scenario, when they are working remotely.”

To move towards creating the type of engagement that can survive whatever a hybrid workplace can throw at it, Cook suggests managers adopt more of a coaching style with their communication and leadership.

“This style of leadership is actually critical in a face-to-face workplace… but it’s even more important when you are managing by distance.

“On one hand, you have a compliance leadership mentality that is focused on putting checks and balances in place to eliminate conflict. On the other hand, a coaching leadership mentality helps in resolving and managing conflict more effectively and empower people to take ownership.”

Cook shares these tips for managers who want to increase their skill in managing conflict within a remote team:

  1. Ask lots of really good open questions, e.g. How are you going? How are you working with others? What support do you need from me?
  2. Encourage people to deal directly with their colleagues when they are having conflict rather than stepping in straight away to mediate. Coach your team and equip them with the skills to deal with conflict.
  3. Recognise that good ideas don’t just happen in the office. Hybrid working can be so good for teams to be more creative and productive. It’s about balancing the benefits with the practical realities of your unique team and the work you do.

“The key to managing conflict effectively is trust,” argues Cook. “Constructive conflict and trust are two sides of the same coin, they coexist. Leaders must work toward building trust within their teams, especially in the case of a hybrid workplace. Get out of their way, show them they are trusted to get the job done, even remotely.”

Increase your confidence in managing conflict

At the Institute of Managers and Leaders Australia and New Zealand, we have a suite of masterclasses, including Deal with Conflict Confidently, designed to help you master the leadership skills you need to succeed in your role. Our expert facilitators use their real-world experience to guide you as you navigate the complexities and challenges of leadership.

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