Managing Conflict in Virtual Teams

Instructor: Laura Gray

Laura has taught at the secondary and tertiary levels for 20+ years and has a Ph.D. in Instructional Design for Online Learning.

In this lesson, we will explore several key ways that one can manage conflict when working with virtual teams. In addition, we will discuss the two major types of conflict that arise in virtual work situations.

Conflict is Inevitable

No matter what type of work you do, whether it's in an eighty-story office building on Madison Avenue or at a small laptop computer at your dining room table, you will most assuredly encounter some type of conflict at one point or another. That's a fact. Even if you are a step or two removed from the conflict - in other words, if you are the virtual supervisor or the virtual boss, the person who oversees those who work at their laptop computers at the dining room tables, you will be called upon to manage or even to prevent these conflicts as they arise.

There are generally two types of conflicts that arise in a virtual working situation: task-related conflict, which deals with how to do things and the structure of how virtual teams go about their day-to-day business when working on a project, and interpersonal conflict, which, of course, is much more emotion-driven and can be more of a problem because it can ultimately lead to two workers avoiding each other. Avoidance is something that happens, even in virtual environments, so dealing with conflict is just as important in a virtual environment as it is in a face-to-face environment. As you might guess, the latter of these two types of conflict is much more difficult to deal with and to resolve.

I'll offer a couple of examples here, just so you have an idea. A task-related conflict would be something where two virtual workers don't agree on the placement of the company logo or brand on a virtual artifact they've developed for a project. This has to do with a task rather than with a personal conflict or personality clash between the two workers. They simply disagree on this one work-related thing. Outside of work, they are perfectly okay with each other. Make sense?

On the other hand, an example of an interpersonal conflict would be where these same two co-workers were fighting because one of them told several co-workers that the other had a love interest on the team, and this other person did not want others knowing about it. This kind of conflict is not task-related because it has nothing to do with the work being produced, and outside of work, people on the team are 'not' okay with each other. Of course, this type of conflict can be extremely difficult to deal with.

Conflict can arise in virtual work environments

Dealing with Conflict is Essential

Now that we have established that interpersonal conflict will happen from time to time, no matter how happy and well adjusted your virtual workers are, let's talk about some best practices for dealing with conflict.

Careful Team Building

First, put your virtual teams together as carefully as you would a team that is working together face-to-face. Believe it or not, this is really important! Just because your team members may not be working together in the same office or in the same building, their areas of expertise, as well as those things about the project about which they may feel proprietary, 'will' reveal themselves. In other words, regardless of where they are located, their personalities will shine through, even though communication between one another may be asynchronous (not in real time).

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