Team Conflict Today: How Remote Work Changes the Way We Get Along With Our Coworkers

What happens to team conflict when you move work online?

Some things get better: You no longer have to suffer the stench when Brad from accounting decides to reheat a fish lunch in the office microwave. No one argues over whose turn it is to get the door for a FedEx delivery or answer the phone when the receptionist is away from his desk. Carol isn’t always tapping you on the back for help logging into her email.

But it’s not all sunshine and roses. Carol doesn’t tap you on the shoulder, but she does message you in Slack. You’re now in charge of answering the door and the phone in addition to dealing with all other family, pet, and neighbor distractions. Sometimes your teammates misunderstand when you’re trying to be sarcastic. And you miss hanging out with Brad before the weekly stand-up.

The fundamentals of conflict don’t change when moving to a fully remote work environment. But this move shifts the way people communicate with each other, eliminating some of the stressors that cause team conflict and exacerbating others.

Thankfully, there are ways remote teams can mitigate these new stressors and take full advantage of asynchronous communication to reduce and resolve conflict at work.

What Causes Conflict at Work?

Though the specifics of each situation vary, work conflicts tend to arise from the same sources no matter whether they’re in-person or remote.

We feel excluded.

You didn’t get to work on that project you were excited about. No one asked you to join the weekly lunch run. You didn’t have enough context to add your opinion in a team-wide discussion, or you were too intimidated to speak up among senior or “more experienced” team members.

We feel undervalued.

The promotion went to someone else. No one asks for your opinion or help. Other people interrupt you — All. The. Time.

We feel misunderstood.

Your team members tend to look too much (or not enough) into what you say.

We feel like we disagree.

Sometimes your company asks you or your team to do things that you’d prefer to handle another way or not at all. Or your team’s values don’t always align with your values.

Disagreements aren’t inherently bad. They test assumptions and help build better teams and products, as long as they’re voiced in a respectful and constructive way. Disagreements become problems when your teammates don’t acknowledge and honor your differing opinions, or if you don’t extend the same courtesy to theirs.

We feel emotionally attacked or disrespected.

Your manager makes an off-color remark or gives you a strange look. A teammate calls you out in front of everyone else. Your CEO launches into a screaming tirade, doling out blame and making threats when something doesn’t go his or her way.

Even though these common types of conflicts show up in different ways, they all share a common denominator — fear.

Team Conflict is Fear in Disguise

Fear forms the baseline for work conflict, though it may not show up that way.

Say your manager brings you on a Zoom call to give you critical, non-constructive feedback. It’s an uncomfortable experience, and you feel a mix of emotions during and after the call. You’re disappointed; you worked so hard on that project. You’re confused; you don’t understand what you did wrong. You’re dejected; you thought you had a strong connection with that manager.

Underlying them all, however, is fear. You’re afraid of not being good enough. If you don’t do a good job, you might get fired. If you get fired, you won’t be able to pay your rent. You won’t be able to find another job. You won’t be able to survive.

At work, fear often comes out as anger — an emotion that seems, on the surface, the opposite of fear. That is because people are afraid that if they show fear, others may think they are weak and are bad at their jobs. They feel they have to respond to conflict in some way, so they turn to anger.

It’s hard to look weak at work. Because if you express yourself as being weak, then people might associate you with being bad at your job. Being afraid is a weakness. So how do you express fear without looking weak? You get angry.

Often enough, that fear doesn’t show up at all. People choose not to respond to conflict either by pretending nothing’s wrong or by opting to not disclose their discomfort.

You may think that staying quiet is preferable to getting angry. It’s not. When people stay quiet, it’s more difficult to recognize there’s a problem. The conflict persists, grows, and at some point, becomes unmanageable.

What Happens to Team Conflict When You Move Work Online?

The nature of conflict doesn’t change from office to remote environment. But remote work disproportionately adds and eliminates stress from certain aspects of work.

This is in part due to the fact that remote work relies on asynchronous communication rather than the real-time, synchronous style preferred in the office environment.

Asynchronous communication doesn’t happen in real-time. Instead of pulling people into meetings to discuss a company announcement or a project’s next steps, those conversations happen over time, in a tool like Threads.

What if my remote team prefers to work synchronously?

When teams try to replicate their synchronous, in-office experience online, it creates more stress, leading to more conflict.

It’s like trying to move what used to be an in-person product launch meeting onto a Zoom call. Suddenly, half of your teammates have trouble connecting, the host can’t figure out how to share their screen, and everyone talks over each other because bandwidth issues make it impossible to find a natural pause in the conversation. Chances are someone is going to leave that call feeling unheard.

That same product launch conversation becomes a lot more thoughtful and inclusive when it happens asynchronously.

How Does Asynchronous Communication Reduce Team Conflict?

It makes work more inclusive.

Asynchronous communication makes work more inclusive by opening up conversations to everyone. With async, your team can work seamlessly across

  1. time zones,

  2. experience levels, and

  3. company history.

That means your discussions reap the benefits of many perspectives instead of being dominated by a few. Your people don’t have to be available during certain hours to be part of the conversation. And your team’s perspectives aren’t limited to the most experienced or senior people.

What’s more, your new hires have access to past discussions and decisions and, with that context, can make a more immediate impact on their team. Anyone can bring up a conversation from years before and add their ideas or reengage the conversation from the perspective of new priorities, challenges, technology, and more.

It makes work more intentional.

In addition to making work more inclusive, asynchronous communication makes work more intentional.

Unlike synchronous work, where anyone can walk up and tap you on the shoulder or ping you in Slack to get your attention, asynchronous work reduces those distractions. It gives you more agency over your time and the flexibility to prioritize tasks to better fit your day.

Asynchronous work also minimizes interruptions by giving people fewer opportunities to talk over you. When you have space to share your ideas, you feel that your thoughts matter and that you can make a difference.

It makes work less urgent, emotional, and stressful.

The medium sets the tone in work communication.

Take Slack, for example. When you message someone in Slack, you expect to get a response right away. That makes Slack a good tool for communicating more timely or urgent matters like providing quick guidance on a deadline or dealing with a site outage.

Meetings, on the other hand, are more emotional. It takes more effort to set up a face-to-face meeting when you work online. That means meetings are better reserved for important things that can’t be easily communicated in writing like giving feedback on work performance or getting to know someone new.

Imagine how you’d feel if your manager surprised you with an unexplained meeting invite. It’s easy to wonder what your manager wants to talk to you about so much that she can’t do it through Slack or email. You work through the morning with that meeting invite in the back of your mind — surely, something must be wrong — only to discover she only wants to eat lunch and talk about Tiger King with you.

Work gets stressful when teams rely too much on synchronous mediums like Slack and meetings. Smart chat tools such as Slack make everything feel urgent, like you have to respond to every message immediately. Meetings break up the flow of the day and can make hours feel like an emotional roller coaster, depending on what’s on the agenda.

An asynchronous medium, such as an online forum or Threads, doesn’t carry those same urgent or emotional undertones. It gives you time and space to do deeper, more high-quality work, making work more fulfilling and meaningful. It’s also more flexible, allowing you to choose when and where to work. That way, you don’t have to stress about working instead of being present for yourself or your family.

When work is less stressful, you can communicate from a place of knowledge and ease. This not only makes you a better worker but also eliminates the underlying stressors that contribute to team conflict.

How Does Asynchronous Communication Make Team Conflict Worse?

It makes it more difficult to read emotions.

The more distant you are from people, the less human they seem, and the less you understand and feel connected to them. This is important to keep in mind when trying to communicate across countries and through screens.

While this issue is true for remote synchronous communication (ever struggle to read emotional cues on a Zoom call?), it’s even more of a problem for asynchronous work. Instead of getting that face-to-face, real-time conversation, you’re stuck interpreting others’ tones and emotional states primarily through text. It’s not easy to gauge how someone’s feeling from emojis and exclamation points.

Asynchronous communication also provides less of an opportunity to learn about the people you work with. You might find out the surface-level facts about your team, but you’re not sure about their communication styles and what makes them tick.

You know that your project manager just bought a house, but you don’t have a good enough read on his baseline emotion to tell how he feels about it without prying. Is he proud to reach a new milestone? Is he worried about taking on a large financial risk? Is he open to you asking about it?

When people don’t understand how their teammates communicate, they tend to project their own communication style, preferences, and intentions on others. But comparing another person’s behavior to your own is like trying to extrapolate from a too-small data set.

Just because you like to shout wins from the rooftops doesn’t mean everyone celebrates with the same level of excitement. You might think a more reserved designer couldn’t care less about a new, promising project, when, in fact, they’re just as thrilled as you are. Likewise, you may prefer to jump right to business, while others think it’s rude not to take the time to check in and share a personal anecdote at the beginning of a conversation. If they don’t realize that blunt style is normal for you, they might take it the wrong way.

Comparing another person’s behavior to your own is like trying to extrapolate from a too-small data set.

You can’t tell how someone is feeling if you don’t have a good grasp on what’s normal for that person. And you can’t know what’s normal for them unless you look outside yourself.

It makes it more difficult to connect with teammates.

Work connections are all about serendipity. They grow through organic, unstructured interactions, such as impromptu lunch trips and well-timed jokes. Unfortunately, serendipity is harder to find when everyone is distributed.

To make up for it, remote teams schedule informal watercooler sessions and virtual, team-wide activities. They’re discovering, though, that it’s difficult to build real, meaningful connections by blocking out 30 minutes a week for planned socializing. That approach doesn’t feel genuine, nor serendipitous.

While Zoom calls are poor substitutes for in-person conversations, asynchronous communication doesn’t fare any better. It’s even more difficult to feel connected when the bulk of your discussions happen over time.

This lack of connection makes work feel more isolating and stressful. The lows feel lower — it can feel as if you’re working in a silo and the things you do don’t impact anyone else. And the highs aren’t as high — instead of celebrating a new customer with a night out with your team, you’re limited to a parade of gifs and 👏👏.

How Do You Reduce or Eliminate Remote Team Conflict?

Asynchronous communication creates its own set of challenges for teams trying to forge strong remote team connections. But there are ways around them.

Allow People to Be Different

Not everyone communicates the way you do. Take the time to gauge what’s normal for your team members so you can tell when something’s wrong.

There’s no shortcut to learning how your teammates think and feel. Getting to this point takes time and intentional interaction. However, there are a few things you can do to start making progress.

To begin, be open about what you’re feeling when working asynchronously, and ask that your team does the same. You can do this by writing out your thoughts and feelings when updating a team-wide thread. You can also get each person on your team to publish “collaboration instructions” that spell out how they prefer to communicate.

Get Comfortable Speaking Up

Speak up if you feel hurt by something someone said. Ask them to clarify their intention so you can verify your interpretation of what they wrote or said.

Having a discussion (rather than hiding your feelings or reacting with anger) helps both people learn more about each other. It also gives you an opening to addressing and resolving the conflict.

If your interpretation was right, you can set boundaries on how that person communicates with you. If your interpretation was wrong, you get a step closer to understanding how that person communicates so you can look out for it in the future.

Look for New Ways to Bring People Together

Zoom watercoolers and all-hands meetings can go only so far. Experiment with other video-conferencing activities, such as virtual happy hours and movie watch parties. You could even deliver painting supplies to your employees’ homes and host a virtual paint night.

It might make sense to invest in private coworking spaces for people who live near each other. If your team is spread across states, countries, or even continents, look at planning one or two annual, in-person retreats to get in that precious face time.

Larger companies can hire dedicated community managers tasked with finding new ways to build connections among team members and cultivate a strong sense of culture.

One thing every company can do is create more opportunities for those serendipitous moments to take place. For example, stop trying to cram all work communication into a synchronous tool like Slack. Instead, invest in an asynchronous tool, such as Threads, to manage your important conversations and leave Slack open for fortuitous exchanges and charmed interactions.

How Do You Capitalize on the Advantages of Asynchronous Communication?

To capitalize on the advantages of asynchronous communication, invest in tools that make your team more effective and efficient at working asynchronously. Fully distributed teams such as GitLab, Automattic, Buffer, and Zapier use online forum-like tools to manage their asynchronous communication. Some of them leverage dedicated internal resources to build their own solution, while companies like Buffer use Threads.

Threads is an asynchronous work-communications platform that pulls from the best features of online forums, helping teams get the most out of their discussions and decisions.

Asynchronous communication empowers everyone on your team to bring their best ideas to the table. With those ideas, you can make bigger bets, tackle more complex projects, and have a greater impact on your business.

The better your company is at harnessing internal knowledge, the greater competitive advantage they’ll have in the increasingly creative economy.