Why is there still workplace conflict when we’re working from home?

My phone stopped ringing for a while at the start of the pandemic when many people started to work from home. One organization that had booked me for a workplace restoration put their plans on an indefinite hold. I wondered what the future held.

Six weeks later I was busier than ever. When I look back at the work I’ve done over the last two years or so, about half of the people I worked with were in organizations that were unable to switch to a virtual environment. In the other half, employees were working from home.

It may seem counter-intuitive that people working from their homes would experience dysfunctional conflict. And at first, it did seem like the pandemic would mean a respite from workplace conflict. People who had differences were no longer obliged to meet in person and interact on a daily basis. It became much easier to avoid those one didn’t get along with. For a while, there was even a shared sense of purpose. We were all subject to the same uncertainties and supporting each other seemed important.

However the behaviours that cause friction in real life also make it difficult to work together in a virtual environment. Demoralizing words, dismissive gestures such as eye-rolling, and a harsh tone of voice all damage relationships, whether you’re meeting in a corner office or on a zoom screen. It is also harder to repair relationships when people aren’t meeting in person. There is less opportunity to make a quick apology or correct misapprehensions. You can no longer just drop in by a co-worker’s desk to check in if you suspect they’re annoyed with you, or bring someone their favourite coffee as a conciliatory gesture.

In addition, everyone is under stress and has less patience. (Just ask anyone in a customer service position.) At the same time we’re distracted and trying to do too much at once. In my experience, at least half of the people in any virtual meeting are multi-tasking and not fully paying attention. If I can pick up on these cues, I’m sure that others can too. And the feeling that others are not paying attention leads to a sense of disrespect. This feeling can in turn provoke what mediators call “negative reciprocity” – you made me feel disrespected, so I have the impulse to make you feel the same way. And on it goes.

I don’t have any easy answers, except to say that patience and compassion are more important than ever.

The client who put their workplace restoration on hold? They came back after a couple of months. The temporary improvement in workplace morale when they went virtual didn’t survive the first lockdown.

Photo Credit: Dean Calma / IAEA