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Settling Workplace Disputes While Out of Office

Settling Workplace Disputes While Out of Office

Steve Heisler

illustration of frustrated people at laptops

Successful virtual conflict mediation begins by replicating an in-person discussion

Part of the Marketing News COVID-19 Special Issue

Absent of tone, context or intention, even the most innocuous of office emails can read like an inflammatory YouTube comment. This phenomenon abounds in the virtual workplace and is more pronounced now that offices are closed to slow the spread of COVID-19. It’s possible that emails and instant messages could amplify misunderstandings between employees in the absence of face-to-face interaction. Nuance is nearly impossible to decipher over the internet and conflicts are certain to arise.

“When folks are working remotely, people tend to tone down their social inhibitions … it can make people more cavalier about their actions, which can result in people getting their feelings hurt,” says Lindsay Kolowich, team manager of marketing at HubSpot. “We don’t have in-person signals like body language and facial expressions that can give us an indication of how someone is feeling or what they are saying.”

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A workplace conflict is, at its root, a misalignment of expectations. In some cases, two parties interpreted project responsibilities in wildly different ways, leading to work that needs redoing. This can take the form of personality conflicts, exacerbated by the stress of work. Once employees start blaming and pointing fingers at one another, it’s likely time for a manager to step in.

Effective conflict mediation requires a human touch, so the process of remote mediation begins by stripping away as many technology barriers as possible. Tough conversations are best held over video chat rather than via email. Communication frequency should increase to compensate for the loss of casual conversations around the office. And remind your team that they’re working alongside the same colleagues as before—people who share goals—and not anonymous internet commenters.

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Steve Heisler is a staff writer at the American Marketing Association. His work can be found in Rolling Stone, GQ, The A.V. Club and Chicago Sun-Times. He may be reached at sheisler@ama.org.