Less Conflict, More Productivity! By Cynthia Clay
Is there more or less conflict when teams work virtually? You might think that once you work from home (or a remote office), there are fewer people to get on your nerves and therefore your work environment will be more peaceful and conflict-free. The reality is that conflict may be hidden for a time but it is still present. And in some cases, conflict may occur more easily because you can't see your coworkers and observe their activities.
Differences in style, personality, and work methods are present even when we work across geographic boundaries. A couple of years ago, when working with a virtual team, we had a virtual meeting to review a course we had designed. Two people on the client's team had spent many hours with an instructional designer working through a solid design process. At the review meeting by phone, a new person commandeered the discussion and proceeded to take the design apart, pointing out why she thought various elements were not important or not to her liking. She dominated the conversation which was frustrating to everyone involved. We received text messages in the background from the other members of the team apologizing for what was happening. The new team member didn't seem to understand her role, the process, or why she was asked to the meeting. Without being able to see our faces, because no one was on camera, she just went on a tear, literally tearing apart the course. When she finally ran out of steam, her coworkers thanked her for her input and the call ended.
If you examine the underlying causes of conflict in this example, four stand out: failure to clarify roles and responsibilities; lack of perspective or project history; personality or style; and finally, the inability to see each other over web cameras to read facial expressions and body language. This fourth cause is unique to working in a virtual environment. What organizations are beginning to recognize is that a project team's use of web cameras makes it possible to read non-verbal messages. That open channel of visual communication has the potential to minimize ambiguity, clarify communication, and reduce conflict.
Cynthia Clay is the President/CEO of NetSpeed Learning Solutions (based in Seattle Washington) and the author of Great Webinars: How to Create Interactive Learning that is Captivating, Informative, and Fun! as well as Peer Power: Transforming Workplace Relationships. Her company helps people increase their effectiveness in virtual environments.