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How to Resolve Conflicts with a Remote Coworker

(Source: hbr.org)

Most of us avoid or delay uncomfortable conversations even with people who sit beside us. It’s natural to dislike confrontation. Now imagine how easy it is to let concerns fester when your teammate is two time zones away. Avoiding an important conversation is a bad idea with an office mate and an even worse idea with a virtual teammate. Get the issues out in the open as quickly as possible before they sour your relationship and affect your ability to get the job done. Provide crisp and clear observations of your teammate’s behavior as free of judgment and subjectivity as possible. Ideally, when you have the conversation, use a communication vehicle that has video in addition to audio. With the addition of the video, your facial expressions will help convey your positive intentions.

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Jody Dole/Getty Images

Working as part of a remote team, with colleagues spread out in different locations, is increasingly common and surprisingly challenging. Absent non-verbal cues, it’s often difficult to gauge how your relationship is going. If something does start to derail your relationship, you don’t have the benefit of informal office interactions to build rapport and re-establish trust. Small irritants that aren’t addressed can fester into resentment and eventually impact your work. Don’t let concerns with your remote teammates grow bigger than they need to be. There are a few techniques you can use to deliver feedback that will get the relationship back on track.

Although you may have been thinking about concerns in your relationship for a while, suddenly phoning a teammate to share your constructive feedback might take them off guard. That element of surprise is likely to trigger defensiveness and erode trust, rather than strengthening it. Instead of springing feedback on your colleague, give the person a call and ask if you can set up some time to talk about how things have been going. Find a time that you can dedicate to discussing what’s working and what could be improved in your relationship. “I’m finding it challenging working remotely and I’d like to spend some time talking about what’s working and how we could be more effective.”

Ideally, when you have the conversation, use a communication vehicle that has video in addition to audio. With the addition of the video, your facial expressions will help convey your positive intentions. If you’re relegated to the phone, you’ll have to convey your openness with just your words and tone. In that case, be explicit that you’re interested in making the relationship work for both of you and that you’re open to giving and receiving feedback. You could say, “Thanks so much for setting up this time. I thought it would be valuable to give each other some feedback and to talk about how we can work effectively at a distance.”

When it comes to delivering feedback, use the same formula that you would in any other feedback situation. First, provide crisp and clear observations of your teammate’s behavior as free of judgment and subjectivity as possible. (For example, instead of “you were rude to me,” try “when you interrupted me as I tried to be heard over the phone…”) Second, describe the impact of the person’s behavior. Phrase the impact as your reaction or impression, not as the objective truth. (“When you talked over me when I was on the conference call, I felt like you don’t respect what I have to say.”) Finally, ask an open-ended question that engages your teammate in a dialogue and helps you to understand one another’s perceptions. (“How did you perceive that call when you were in the meeting room?”) Don’t stop until you each have a clear vision for how a similar situation could play out better the next time.

As you’re talking, annotate your conversation with both the things you’re thinking and the things you’re feeling. For example, if you are quiet for a moment, don’t leave them wondering, just say, “Give me a moment to think about that.” If you’re taken aback by feedback you receive, say “Wow, that’s a surprise to me — I had no idea!” If you’re struggling with the conversation, say, “This is difficult for me, but I’m glad that we’re getting this stuff on the table.” It will seem foreign at first, but over time, you’ll get used to adding this extra layer of information to your communication.

If you’ve gotten to this point, you’ve already made huge progress, but remote teammates can easily slip out of sight and out of mind. To ensure that your commitments don’t fade just because you won’t bump into each other at the photocopier, spend a few minutes at the end of your conversation to develop an action plan. Where possible, put actions straight into your calendars. If you committed to check in weekly, send a meeting invite. If you promised to follow-up within 24 hours of receiving something, make it a task with a reminder in your calendar. You can even set a reminder monthly to check in with the person just to see how things are going.

Finally, use written communication to document the conversation. If the issues were minor and easily resolved, you can stick to email. If things had deteriorated more than you thought, it might be worth popping a card in the inter-office mail. Use a simple message that conveys your gratitude and reinforces your willingness to invest in the relationship; something like: “Thanks for the conversation this morning. I got a much better sense of how tough it is for you when you’re dependent on the team at head office to make a deadline. I also felt like you understood my predicament in having multiple regional teams that I have to support. As we agreed, from now on we’ll have a weekly 15-minute touch point on Monday mornings to make sure our priorities are aligned. Thanks again!”

Most of us avoid or delay uncomfortable conversations even with people who sit beside us. It’s natural to dislike confrontation. Now imagine how easy it is to let concerns fester when your teammate is two time zones away. Avoiding an important conversation is a bad idea with an office mate and an even worse idea with a virtual teammate. Get the issues out in the open as quickly as possible before they sour your relationship and affect your ability to get the job done.

More Info: hbr.org

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