On Thursday, May 27, 2021, Pollack Peacebuilding Systems hosted a peacebuilding panel discussion on a relevant topic for many organizations today: “Preventing Workplace Conflict post-COVID: The Remote to in-Person Transition.” As vaccine distribution ramps up across the world, organizational leaders find themselves in a position of deciding how the future of work at their organization should be conducted. We brought in four expert panelists to talk about the challenges associated with the remote to in-person work transition, including Dr. Suzanne Ghais, Dr. Sherman Green, Leila Bidad, and Jeremy Pollack.
What challenges does the remote to in-person transition pose to organizations? Where does conflict show up in this transition?
Dr. Suzanne Ghais started off the conversation by posing that as in-person work becomes more and more feasible, organizations will have to come up with new policies about how to deal with remote versus in-person work. Not only this, but organizations will have to navigate this transition during a time at which staff cohesion is likely low. Dr. Ghais noted that there may be visible resentment from employees who had to work in-person during the pandemic towards those who had greater flexibility working from home. Added to the lack of in-person contact and connection over the past year, such resentment can widen the worker-management divide.
This divide can be further exacerbated by how management reacts to the remote to in-person transition. An example of this was recently seen in a particular article in the Washington Post written by the CEO of the Washingtonian Magazine. In this particular article, the CEO mentioned an incentive to change the status of employees who work remotely to that of a contractor. This article and comment made employees of the Washingtonian Magazine feel personally threatened and caused them to go on strike shortly after the article’s publication. Dr. Ghais mentioned this article as a cautionary tale to organizational leaders considering their post-pandemic options.
The panelists further discussed that the lack of in-person contact while working remotely can make employees think ongoing conflicts no longer exist. When employees work remotely, they don’t have to see others constantly and have space between interpersonal interactions within the safety of their home. This can be beneficial in rebuilding trust in relationships but can be detrimental in making employees think that they will no longer have to deal with conflict. For others who experienced conflict within the remote setting, the transition to in-person work can elicit fear, stress, and tension knowing that they will have to interact with the people they have come into conflict with.
What best leadership practices can workplace leaders follow to help mitigate this conflict?
Dr. Sherman Green spoke to this question and named a few best practices for leaders to follow, including the importance of acting responsibly, diagnosing the actual conflict, respecting differences, and setting goals. For his first point, Dr. Green noted that acting responsibly with conflict as a leader means directly facing the conflict. It can be tempting for leaders to want to avoid handling employee conflict and let it work out on its own. But not acting responsibly in this way can lead to a loss of trust and respect in leadership by employees. As part of acting responsibly, Dr. Green highlighted that leaders should diagnose the conflicts that occur between employees. If a leader waits too long to address and diagnose a conflict among employees, the employees may be more hesitant to seek help from this leader in the future.
Another leadership best practice that Dr. Green highlighted was respecting differences. Often, conflicts arise because employees lack respect towards things different from them. If leaders are able to show respect for all points of view, whether it be between employees or between management and employees, they will be a catalyst for conflict prevention within the company. Another way of preventing conflict in this transition period is through setting goals. If leaders are able to set specific goals about a particular conflict, it allows everyone involved to think wholistically and strategically about remedying the conflict and moving forward. Even if overt conflict resurfaces, having goals in place sets standards for both sides on being cordial within the conflict resolution process.
In terms of preventing workplace conflict, what are the pros and cons of remote vs. in-person vs. a hybrid approach to work?
When looking at the different approaches to work post-pandemic, there is no one-size-fits-all approach for each company. Leila Bidad tackled this question, explaining that each approach has pros and cons. First, going back to work fully in person has obvious pros that remote work does not offer, like in-person connection and comradery. This in-person connection can raise team morale and give employees a sense of belonging at work. On the other hand, remote work also has pros such as increased work flexibility and cushion space between meetings or difficult conversations. Leila mentioned that hybrid models are inherently constructive and allow for breathing room, work-life balance, flexibility, and connection with other employees.
The group discussed that regardless of which approach to work an organization takes, it is important to spend time building coworker relationships. Especially for employees who are virtual, leadership needs to plan conscious intentional ways they can get to know each other and build upon current relationships. These types of employee activities should be on paid time and should not claimed as ‘optional’ by managers. Dr. Ghais synonymized workplace relationships to oil in an engine—they keep it from seizing up and coming to a halt. Especially after over a year of little interaction, prioritizing workplace relationships is a must, regardless of whether an organization vouches for an in-person, remote, or hybrid approach.
What are some practical tools organizations should keep in mind to prevent conflict during this transition period?
Often, when leadership is confronted with making decisions, they have this notion that they have to do it alone. Founder of Pollack Peacebuilding
Systems, Jeremy Pollack, countered this narrative, explaining that leadership should not do it alone. When organizations are navigating the future of work, Jeremy suggested they keep in mind this general framework for preventing destructive conflict as a part of change management protocols and transition periods:
- Inclusion: Give people a voice and consider their input. More often than not, employees want to have input and want to be included in decision-making processes, especially when a particular decision affects where and how they work. Leaders should consider how they might open a dialogue about hybrid work to both hear employee concerns and share their own concerns. It may be beneficial to provide a survey with open and closed questions and present the results of the survey to employees to open up a discussion about the topic. Leaders need to keep in mind that including employees and collaborating with them on solutions is key to mitigating destructive conflict. If we can give people agency in co-creating the return-to-office plan, we get their buy-in from the start and dramatically lower the risk of negative conflict.
- Transparency: Be open and honest with employees about what is happening, why the decision has been made, and how other perspectives or alternatives were considered in the decision-making process. Transparency as part of the decision-making process and the plan is extremely important for raising trust and mitigating potential destructive outcomes of conflict. As leaders think about how to handle the remote to in-person transition, they should ask themselves: What are our concerns with keeping things hybrid or with transitioning back to the office full-time? An important element to consider here is metrics. Leaders should inquire as to whether they have any metrics or measurements to assess whether remote or hybrid work is detrimental to the company. Establishing metrics to measure how in-office presence is working (engagement, satisfaction, and productivity) is important. Considering the level of comfortability that some employees have found with remote work, it may be helpful to see if something other than in-person work could get the company back on track. Regardless of the decision made, it is crucial to be transparent about the reasoning for the decision and to give space for employee input to address concerns and the reasons management has for making the decision.
- Clarity: Present a clear understanding of the plan. It is important that everyone in the organization is aligned on understanding what the post-pandemic work transition plan is. It can be difficult at times to ensure that employees completely understand the plan but doing so ensures less miscommunication. This being said, leaders may want to incorporate some sort of feedback system to ensure every aspect of the plan is understood fully.
The panelists all agreed that practical tools will vary depending on each organization’s needs. Whatever practical tools are utilized, leaders should be inclusive, transparent, and clear in using them to ensure everyone is involved and understanding of why a certain path is taken.
If you are interested in attending future peacebuilding panel discussions on topics related to workplace conflict resolution, email email@example.com with your interest and we will send you information on our upcoming panel discussions.