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Why Building Trust Is Key to Managing Conflict in Virtual Teams
By Richard Lepsinger

Managing a virtual team is both rewarding and challenging. Flexibility, decreased overhead costs and freedom to work from any place in the world are certainly attractive advantages, but the lack of face-to-face interaction can make critical managerial responsibilities like conflict resolution uniquely taxing.

In a virtual setting, words can be easily misconstrued, and unresolved disputes between team members can significantly hinder a team’s ability to efficiently and productively work together. Conflict isn’t inherently a bad thing; in fact, it can actually strengthen your team if you’re able to work through it in a constructive way and reach a positive resolution.

What’s destructive is the resentment and lack of unity that unresolved conflict can cause within your team. No virtual team can avoid conflict entirely, nor should that be the goal. However, you can strengthen your team’s ability to manage conflict by developing stronger interpersonal relationships.

Teams fortified by strong interpersonal relationships possess greater communication skills and trust-two of the most important components of a successful virtual workforce.

In physical work environments, team members incidentally or purposefully form bonds. But in a virtual setting, it’s easy to become comfortable with isolation. Leaders must intentionally create opportunities for people to interact across geographies and time zones. This, in turn, nurtures the development of vital interpersonal relationships to build trust and social capital.

Here are five ways you can build trust and social capital to strengthen your virtual teams this year.

  1. Face-to-Face Meetings

    Research points strongly to the idea that an initial face-to-face meeting or annual in-person meetings produce more successful virtual teams. Our own findings show the highest-performing virtual teams make an effort to host a face-to-face meeting with new team members within the first 90 days. If time and geography won’t allow it, aim for a series of short virtual meetings to replicate what you would do in person.

    Though bringing the team together may require a sizeable investment, the return (a highly functional remote workforce) is well worth it. In planning these events, be sure to budget time for non business-related socialization to provide an opportunity for your virtual team to connect on a personal level.

  2. Create a Virtual Water Cooler

    Set up an internal social network for your team – a virtual location they can access and share thoughts, ideas, pictures, business goals and achievements regardless of geographic location or time zone. This could be as simple as setting up a team Facebook page where everyone is free to contribute.

    This virtual water cooler shouldn’t be business only. Encourage sharing hobbies, personal photos and other work-appropriate content to nurture socialization.

  3. Find Reasons to Celebrate

    Whether it’s a birthday, anniversary or offbeat holiday, find reasons to celebrate as a team. Taking time out from straight-faced business to commemorate someone or something is a great way to get your virtual team members interacting with one another on friendly terms.

    Hosting a virtual party is a perfect way to kick off some team bonding in the year ahead, and it’s not only for the holidays. You can use some of these 16 creative tips to celebrate other occasions all year long.

  4. Partner Team Members Strategically

    As you assign team members to various projects, consider what pairings can help strengthen relationships. It may be more convenient to assemble a team of people who are all in the same geographic location, but if the same people are always working together, you’re missing opportunities to build the team as a whole. Mix it up when you can. This not only strengthens bonds between team members; it also brings new skill sets and a fresh perspective to each project.

  5. Create Space and Time for Employees to Voice Concerns

    Periodically schedule progress meetings with each individual remote employee or set the expectation that anyone with concerns is welcome to schedule exclusive time with you. Remote environments make it very easy for feuding team members to avoid one another, so a festering argument (be it personal or task related) can grow into something larger than necessary.

    By providing a forum for your virtual employees to speak openly with you about any concerns they have, you can identify conflicts early on and work to resolve them before they create a toxic remote work environment.

Richard Lepsinger is President of OnPoint Consulting and has a twenty-five year track record of success as a human resource consultant and executive. The focus of Rick’s work has been on helping organizations close the gap between strategy and execution, work effectively in a matrix organization and lead and collaborate in a virtual environment.

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