Contemporary collaboration: Conflict resolution online

We have all dealt with conflicts and their solutions in person – but what about conflicts that arise online?  Can we solve these conflicts with our existing behavioral patterns or do we need new strategies?

New technologies and software (such as Skype, HipChat and Slack) are increasingly enabling us to collaborate online with colleagues around the world.  This saves travel time, travel expenses and real estate costs, but with new opportunities come new challenges.  Who’s hasn’t arranged for everyone to attend a video conference, only to waste time getting both the video and the sound working?  Who hasn’t experienced overlapped speaking during conference calls?  Who’s not bothered by ambiguous emails?  Latent conflicts can develop quickly, and impede the success of a project.  Often it can be difficult to know what to do.

Based on feedback we have received from various companies, we have identified three sources of conflict and possible solutions.

Conflict source 1: Face to face vs. online communication

We typically apply our face-to-face communication behaviour to digital communication. Accordingly, we expect that a video conference will be the same as a physical meeting.

Solution: Change your virtual communication behavior

One option is to set clear expectations, tasks and feedback. This means much more than just providing additional information and referencing links.  You can also work on your own expectations: it is better to allow more time for answering questions than to assume that everyone has immediately understood everything. A third option is to nominate a moderator to ensure smooth communication.

Source of conflict 2: Agile vs. non-agile working cultures

Software such as Confluence, Trello and Jira is developed with agile in mind and in the context of flat hierarchies. The software developers themselves assume that users work with a similar attitude and in a similar working culture. However, if users work in highly bureaucratic, hierarchical organizations that are simply digitizing paperwork, processes come to a standstill.

Solution: Enhance cooperation between IT and (future) users

A digital form has a more complex structure and requires more customization than simply making a few changes in a Word document. It also requires the people who actually work with the programs communicate and collaborate with those who develop them.

Source of conflict 3: Improvement vs. control with tools

For project managers, virtual collaboration means losing a sense of control. While working in the same physical space, it is easier to notice when colleagues are disengaged or absent.  This is less visible in a chat program. Less personal contact means less pressure can be can be applied.

To reduce the uncertainty, you can track an employee’s use of the software (e.g. number of clicks per minute, number of processed tickets). The aim is not so much to control work performance as to carry out a transparent, factual analysis, which should lead everyone to an increase in productivity. When used to control performance, a negative spiral begins: employees refuse to use certain programs in order to be less monitorable, or find mechanisms that make them appear productive. The focus is then on fear, control and manipulation instead of trust, performance enhancement and transparency.

Solution: Use appropriate tools and apply them correctly

Virtual collaboration reaches its limits here, because it is ideal for factual communication. Good collaboration is based on mutual trust and a feeling of belonging. It’s about relationships: while there are digital solutions for team building, interpersonal, direct communication cannot be completely replaced by digital media. Therefore, you should also allow sufficient time and financial resources (arrival, room rental, etc.) for personal meetings.

Virtual conflicts = a learning process for teams and organizations

All three sources of conflict describe the clashes of different working cultures with different mindsets. There are technical training courses that teach users what programs do and how they are used. The questions however, of which attitudes teams should adopt, or what forms of collaboration are useful for achieving their goals, are rarely dealt with in this context.

You should approach online conflicts as a learning opportunity to find the most appropriate forms of digital communication and to design workflows appropriately.

Online communication can be seen as a driving force for a change in corporate culture in which roles are redefined, hierarchies are reconsidered and where ‘analog’ values perceived as useful are deliberately retained. This also means recognizing in your own company when the limits of virtual collaboration have been reached and at what point in time a physical space becomes meaningful or even necessary for sharing information. This is especially the case when it comes to highly complex and highly emotional content.

About the authors

With the aim of supporting teams to achieve a satisfactory and productive level of collaboration, Sarah Gerwing combines three broad topics in her work: 1. agile attitudes and working styles, 2. intercultural communication and 3. virtual collaboration.
Contact: XING and LinkedIn

Johanna Bromm advises companies and individuals nationwide in solving professional and personal problems. Her clients are people who want to make a change in their lives and require personal support to implement it.

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