3 ways to manage conflict when you work remotely

April 6, 2020, 3:08 PM UTC

Remote work options have long been a coveted benefit among employees. And it’s no wonder: The 2019 State of Remote Work report by Owl Labs found that remote workers are happier, feel as if they are more trusted by their employers, and are better able to achieve work/life balance.

But even under the best circumstances, remote work is not without its challenges. A 2017 United Nations report found that 41% of telecommuters were stressed since working remotely can lead to longer office hours and an increased overlap of one’s work and personal life. Add new concerns over COVID-19, a struggling economy, homeschooling children, and shaky job security, and remote workers may find themselves mired in fear and anxiety, creating fertile ground for conflict.

“If you are having a bad day, you might snap at someone, cut a colleague off in the middle of a sentence, or even raise your voice, which is not workplace-appropriate,” says Gina M. Weatherup, founder of Chantilly Mediation and Facilitation, in Virginia. “It’s really important right now that we treat ourselves with some compassion as well as the people we’re interacting with every day.”

Now that you’re probably getting a grip on how to work remotely, here are some ways you can deal with conflict in the weeks to come.

1. Be meticulous about how and when you communicate

Remote working is fraught with opportunities for misunderstanding among coworkers. If your manager casually asks you to meet up later when you’re in the office, her calm and informal demeanor might not trigger any concern. But when you get a Slack message from your boss asking to set up a time to chat, the emotionless text leaves much to the imagination. “And then you respond ‘sure,’ and they don’t respond. All this stuff starts playing in your head,” says Michael Pryor, cofounder of productivity app Trello, which was acquired by Atlassian in 2017.

Almost 80% of Trello’s employees work remotely at least part-time, so in Pryor’s experience, “overcommunicating” is in place to ensure that your tone and messaging are being conveyed correctly. It’s better to add more context and be more careful with language than you might ordinarily be. 

Amy Leschke-Kahle, vice president of performance acceleration at The Marcus Buckingham Co., a consulting firm and division of ADP, agrees. Instead of diving right in, use salutations in email and texts. Even if you’re not a fan of emojis, or think they’re silly, they can be useful and effective in adding tone and context, she says.

Weatherup advises remote teams to take a moment to review important communications. “You can never really be 100% certain that whoever you’re communicating with understands fully unless you ask them what you said or what they think you’re asking for,” she explains. Discuss the reasoning behind such recaps, and what could seem condescending becomes a stopgap.

2. Set clear expectations for your team

It takes longer to get things done when working remotely, so Praveen Kanyadi, cofounder and vice president of products at workforce productivity platform SpotCues, is explicit about his 45-member team’s expectations and needs.

“It’s harder to resolve ambiguities than it would be if we were to interact in person,” he says, so his team holds regular videoconference huddles in the morning, where they discuss the day’s priorities and responsibilities. The entire team observes a common lunch-break time, and they conduct another call around 4 p.m. to evaluate the day’s progress and any issues that need to be addressed. This kind of frequent check-in serves a few purposes: It gives the team face time and doesn’t allow irritations to fester before they are addressed. 

Pryor also recommends replicating things that happen when you’re sharing office space to keep a sense of normalcy. Schedule one-on-ones over Zoom with the teammates that you work with the most so you still simulate lunch conversations and coffee breaks. “Continuing your good rapport remotely makes difficult discussions easier later,” he says. 

3. Manage your emotions—and pick up the phone

Our attitudes and opinions about coworkers can also contribute to remote work conflict, says Mitch Warner, managing partner of the Arbinger Institute, a training and consulting company. “You can’t hide your mindset or how you see other people,” he says. When coworkers sense that you have negative feelings toward them, you’re facilitating conflict. So work on checking your own preconceptions and treat people as a blank slate.

Also, always assume good intent, Weatherup says. If a coworker isn’t immediately available or says something in an off-putting tone, try not to take it personally. “I can’t overestimate the importance of picking up the phone,” she says. And if tensions are flaring in a public discussion, make it a private one, so the added pressure of curious team members doesn’t make things worse, Pryor adds. When you can meet face-to-face to deal with a difficult colleague, one-on-one voice or video communication can work things out.

Overall, be mindful of people’s feelings. If you’re delivering bad news, try to temper it with something positive. If you’re in a bad mood, hold off on nonessential communication until you have a better handle on your emotions, Leschke-Kahle says. And use your curiosity to keep things cool. “Find out what’s going on. Say, ‘Gosh, how did we get here?’” suggests Weatherup. “It opens up a deeper understanding of what the other person is dealing with, how this happened. And then you can figure out the plan to move forward after that.”

More must-read careers coverage from Fortune:

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—4 things to say if recruiters call you during the coronavirus pandemic
—Listen to Leadership Next, a Fortune podcast examining the evolving role of CEOs
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