Flex Basics
February 2, 2024

Navigating Remote Leadership: Strategies for Resolving Collaboration Challenges Virtually

Author avatar
Karen Eden
Founder, Director of Karen Eden Ltd
Article hero image

Join the Flex Index community for exclusive content and updates—subscribe today ✍️


Workplace conflict is an unavoidable reality, a natural byproduct of diverse perspectives, goals, and interactions among individuals. However, what's new and uniquely challenging is addressing and resolving conflict within the context of remote teams. As flexible work arrangements become more prevalent, the absence of physical proximity adds a layer of complexity to conflict resolution.

Unmanaged conflict within virtual teams can harm collaboration, performance, and long-term team cohesion and capability. The absence of visual cues and the silence prevalent in virtual communication can magnify conflicts, making it challenging for leaders to detect issues in their early stages.

Without the needed awareness or toolkit to address conflict as a positive opportunity for growth, organizations can quickly find themselves challenged by attrition, missed deadlines, clear division in the team, or the dreaded silent doom that can hinder virtual team success. Drawing from my 25 years of experience leading virtual programs, this article explores essential strategies for virtual leaders to build a harmonious and conflict-free virtual team culture.

The Five Styles of Conflict

Before we dive into the strategies for resolving conflict, I think it’s important to understand the five different styles of conflict that exist today, as defined by Thomas Kilman.

  • Avoiding: When individuals choose to avoid addressing the conflict altogether, leading to unresolved issues and tension.

  • Accommodating: Cooperating extensively, sometimes at one's own expense, to preserve relationships and avoid confrontation.

  • Competing: Acting assertively to achieve one's own goals without considering the other party's needs or objectives.

  • Collaborating: Working with others to achieve a "win-win" outcome, finding solutions that benefit all parties involved.

  • Compromising: Seeking a middle ground between assertiveness and cooperation, aiming for temporary solutions.

In understanding the five conflict styles, you have likely already identified your own style of conflict and have also been able to recognize how others deal with it. This is the first major step in addressing conflict within virtual teams. By making transparent the individual preferences of the wider team, we can directly respond to conflict in a way that can yield positive results for the team. Alleviating finger-pointing and blame but recognizing differences is what enables us to focus on the real issues at hand.

Where Does Conflict Stem From?

Conflict arises from one of three domains:

  • Relationship Conflict: Personal issues and negative team dynamics

  • Task Conflict: Disagreements about the task at hand, the best approach to complete it, or conflicting views on team goals

  • Process Conflict: When team members are unable to agree how to carry out tasks or utilize resources

Five Crucial Strategies to Resolving Conflict Virtually

Great virtual leaders will make transparent the what, how, and who of virtual team goals. To do this, they will consider the following five crucial building blocks:

1. Set Clear Goals and Objectives

Virtual leaders must establish clear and precise goals and objectives that provide the team with a clear sense of purpose, guiding their collective efforts toward a shared mission. These goals should be of the SMART criteria, ensuring they are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. By doing so, every team member comprehends their roles and responsibilities, addressing both the "what" and "how" aspects of the team's mission. This clarity in goals minimizes misunderstandings and lowers the chances of conflicts arising from task and process uncertainty.

In virtual teams, where members often operate in different time zones and working hours, the need for clearly defined goals becomes even more pronounced. This clarity is essential to prevent duplication of efforts and the inevitable frustration that arises from uncertainty.
Additionally, clear goals diminish competitiveness by transparently outlining each team member's responsibilities and contributions in relation to individual and team objectives. This approach fosters a cohesive team environment and promotes effective collaboration among virtual team members.

2. Establish Communication Guidelines

Effective communication is the cornerstone of successful virtual teamwork. Establishing clear communication guidelines, including preferred channels, response times, and meeting schedules, fosters transparency and consistency within the team. Virtual leaders should encourage open dialogue, active listening, and the expression of diverse viewpoints. Regular check-ins and status updates can help maintain a sense of connection among distributed team members. In addition, virtual leaders must approach virtual team communication with consistency and equality. By utilizing online project management tools and regular team forums and protocols, leaders can ensure that team members are able to trust the information they receive and are all on the same page at the same time. Leaders must avoid disparate communication with individuals where updates are not clearly distributed.

3. Facilitate Virtual Team Building Activities

Engaging in virtual team building activities holds significant importance in nurturing interpersonal connections and fostering trust within the team. A 2006 Harvard study once found that heart surgeons performed better when working with a familiar team than when working with a new one. Virtual team building activities play a pivotal role in strengthening team bonds, improving mutual understanding, and ultimately diminishing the chances of conflicts while nurturing a positive team culture. Leaders can arrange online sessions, collaborative projects, or virtual social events to cultivate a sense of camaraderie among team members. While these events might seem like mere calendar fillers, they are essential for establishing meaningful connections and enabling effective collaboration among team members.

4. Promote Intercultural Awareness

In the world of virtual teams, where geographical distances accentuate cultural disparities, a robust Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) framework led by senior management is paramount. This enhances intercultural awareness and is crucial in defusing conflicts within diverse virtual teams.

Encouraging team members to explore and appreciate diverse backgrounds nurtures empathy, minimizes conflicts rooted in cultural differences, and transforms diversity into a valuable asset for collaborative success.

5. Utilize Conflict Resolution Training and/or Lead by Example

Effective conflict management takes precedence in virtual teams, where distance and diverse perspectives amplify the potential for conflict. The capability to manage conflict effectively can transform conflict into opportunities for growth and learning. Conflict resolution training is not just a means to address disputes but a strategic investment in empowering team members to navigate cultural diversity and understand various conflict types and styles within the virtual landscape.

Virtual leaders will need to double down on demonstrating patience and leading by example, actively listening, and showing empathy and understanding when resolving conflicts. In this environment, where clear communication and mutual respect are foundational, virtual leaders play a pivotal role in turning conflicts into opportunities for growth and learning.

Key Takeaways for Cultivating Harmony in Virtual Teams

In the realm of virtual teams, conflict prevention, management, or “early spotting” stand as some of the most powerful skills a virtual leader can possess. Virtual leaders create a work environment where conflicts are addressed promptly and constructively by channeling their energy toward fostering positive team camaraderie and performance. The benefits extend to the individuals involved and the entire organization, enhancing productivity, creativity, and overall job satisfaction.

To build a collaborative virtual team culture devoid of conflict, virtual leaders should focus on the following five key takeaways:

  1. Set clear goals and objectives to provide a sense of direction and minimize misunderstandings.

  2. Establish communication guidelines to promote transparency and consistency in virtual interactions.

  3. Facilitate virtual team building activities to strengthen interpersonal relationships and build trust among team members.

  4. Promote intercultural awareness to foster empathy and respect in diverse virtual teams.

  5. Utilize conflict resolution training or lead by example to address conflicts constructively and promote a positive team culture.

By implementing these strategies, virtual leaders can create a thriving and harmonious virtual team culture, ensuring the success of both individuals and the organization as a whole.

About the Author

Karen Eden
Karen Eden is a self-employed Human Resources strategic partner, Certified CliftonStrengthsⓒ coach, educator, and speaker with 25+ years of international experience in people and organizational development for Future Work.

Subscribe to Karen's Changology newsletter.

Share Article

Get tips and insights on all things flexible work delivered to your inbox