a blue banner with two laptops that have people pointing at each other with the text "The Facilitator's Guide to Virtual Conflict"

by Elisabeth White | 3-4 minute read

What is Virtual Conflict?

Virtual conflict is conflict between two or more individuals that started or moved to a virtual platform such as email, online chat, video, and/or teleconference. The following are examples of how virtual conflict might materialize or begin:

  • May start or lead to passive aggressive behaviora blue laptop with two text bubbles that have exclamation marks
  • Virtual messages tend to be bolder in nature
  • “Chat” is miscommunicated or misunderstood
  • HR/EE policies are often unknown or forgotten

Because body language, facial expressions, voice tone, and other cues normally experienced during in-person communication are often missing in a virtual setting, it’s easier for virtual conflict to occur.

What Triggers Virtual Conflict?

There are various actions that can trigger virtual conflict, but below are a few  examples:

a grey calendar, two text bubbles, and a laptop

  • Different remote workstyles and habits
  • Interpersonal and communication style clashes
  • Work-pace and schedule conflicts
  • Technology gaps, network issues, system outages, or software breakdowns
  • “Old grudges” brought back to life in a virtual setting

Why Address Virtual Conflict?

two heads shouting at each otherThe focus of a workplace setting should be to achieve goals and deliverables. Virtual conflict moves individuals away from that focus and puts success at risk. To help mitigate that risk, a healthy conversation and collaboration is needed. However, this interaction requires a foundation of trust.

Recommendations for Addressing Virtual Conflict

Take an Empathetic Approach

There are various ways you can show empathy!

  • Be the change!
    • Reflect on how you would want others to respond if you were involved in virtual conflict.
  • Listen by sipping your coffee (or beverage of choice).a head talking with a thought bubble in its brain
    • Create space for others to engage by stopping to take a sip of coffee, AND LISTEN!
  • Don’t let issues fester.
    • If you hear or see an issue, immediately take it offline to address it.
  • Conduct check-ins.

    • See how teammates and colleagues are doing. Ask about their day. Follow up from an issue.
  • Encourage icebreakers and team-builders.
    • Some can be conducted in less than five minutes!

Create Virtual Working Agreements

Consider the following for your virtual working agreements:

  • Being honest about schedules, availability, and workstyles.
  • Identifying “quiet hours," which means time for focus without interruption.a blue computer with a team agreement document in it
  • Coming to a consensus on “no fly zones," which are topics not to be discussed or deliberated virtually.
  • Establishing preferred communication styles and channels.
  • Having trackability to action items with action takers and timelines.
  • Agreeing upon and documented escalation path(s).

Explore Facilitation Techniques

There are two techniques we recommend:

  1. Start with context (or create space for context-setting).
    • Clearly articulate the purpose of the discussion.
    • Provide the desired outcome.
    • Make a commitment to note-taking and action-item tracking.a document with the word "context" and a blue text bubble with the word "weclome!"
  2. Set the tone (or course correct as needed).
    • Be the first to greet everyone.
    • Prepare and provide an icebreaker other form of intros.
    • Create or review Working Agreements before engaging.
    • Watch and listen for “no fly zones.”

Call to Action

Want to start growing your virtual conflict knowledge in your area? Try a few of the following recommendations!

  1. Embody the attitude you would want to experience.
  2. Don’t be afraid to address virtual conflict.
  3. Know the “no fly zones” and respect them.
  4. Provide an empathetic approach.