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Melbourne Business School News Four ways leaders can minimise conflict while working from home

Four ways leaders can minimise conflict while working from home

After a few weeks of working from home, emotions may be running high – and patience thin, writes Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour Carol Gill.

Melbourne Business School Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour Carol Gill

To reduce the risk of conflict or misunderstanding between employees during the COVID-19 pandemic, there are several things leaders can do to tailor their approach to the situation.

1. Take extra care with your emails

Communicating by email can be difficult for several reasons. For a start, emails don't have any of the visual or auditory cues such as facial expressions, body language or tone of voice that help to convey information – from either person, the sender or the receiver.

That limitation makes it hard for leaders to adapt their communication style in response to the reaction of the other person during an exchange.

What's even more problematic when working from home is that leaders don't know the context in which their emails will be read.

For example, an employee might read your email after a discussion with their partner who has just lost their job – which creates a recency effect, in which the employee may interpret your email negatively.

To counteract this, you should spend some time setting the scene at the start of each email by saying something like "Hi John, I hope you and your family are well at this difficult time" before asking for more information on a report.

This will help to ensure the employee doesn't add thoughts like "my manager doesn't think my report is valuable", which could spiral into "my job will be the next to go".

This takes more time, but it will prevent unnecessary emotional fallout which has a negative impact on employee wellbeing and productivity. Adding an emoji can help convey the emotion you wish to express with the email.

2. Select the right conflict management strategy

"Pick your battles" is sage advice. Some things just aren't worth mentioning right now.

If you get annoyed that someone failed to copy you in on an email to a client, don't turn it into a big deal about their lack of attention to detail or political ambitions. This is a conversation to have another time.

However, some things should be "nipped in the bud" before they become a dysfunctional norm that inspires other people to follow suit.

For instance, if one of your employees attends an important client meeting in a T-shirt, it might be worth mentioning – as long as you don't make a mountain out of a molehill.

Rather than getting personal, focus on the specific context, behaviour and its impact. Instead of saying "you're not professional and you need to smarten up", try something along the lines of this: "At this morning's meeting, I noticed you were in a T-shirt. That could affect the client's view of our professionalism. Can you dress smart-casual for future meetings?"

There may also be some occasions when the issue is so important you have to go in hard. For example, if someone was overdue on an important client deliverable and failed to let you know in advance that there might be a delay.

In that instance, you might say something like this: "The delay on this report can never happen again, or the client could use it as an opportunity to terminate our contract because their cash flow is tight. You need to let me know if you can't deliver at least two days before the deadline, so I can put additional people on the project."

3. Ask questions and listen to the answer

There will be some times when you need to ask closed questions to get specific information, like: "How long do you think this job will take?"

Generally speaking though, now is the time for gathering as much information as possible.

Try to ask open questions of employees after you make a comment or request. For example: "What are your thoughts on this?"' or "How do you feel about that?"

Asking for extra information will help keep your team engaged and motivated – and help you make better decisions. Your employees are often the ones on the front line and it's likely they know more about the intricacies of the situation than you do.

Open questions can also give you an insight into how people are coping with the challenges of working from home. Particularly at this time – as people are juggling childcare, technology and changes to their routine – it's important to be flexible on working arrangements.

Your usual expectations might need to be recalibrated to fit the reality of the situation, and it's important to discuss this with your employees.

4. Take time to celebrate the wins

These are tough times for everyone. Leaders can make a big difference by taking the time to provide recognition, which is linked to better engagement and behavioural change.

I suggest that it's better to focus on celebrating achievements one-on-one at this time, rather than in group forums – although both have their place.

Recognising one individual in a group may leave other employees feeling overlooked, and when employees work from home you may not be across all the good things that are happening.

A good rule of thumb if you want to encourage teamwork is to recognise group achievements in group forums – for example, hitting group targets – and speak directly to individuals when they excel on individual targets.

A private note saying something like "I noticed you adapted your approach to the COVID-19 situation today – great work" will go a long way.

Looking for the good in tough situations and recognising small and big wins regularly will help keep your team motivated. Recognition can be worth more than tangible rewards, particularly at a time when everyone is feeling vulnerable.

Carol Gill is an Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour who teaches People Management and Leadership on our MBA programs. Visit her faculty profile for more information.

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