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6 best practices to managing office politics, whilst working remotely

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A lot of our lives are basically lived online now, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The way we work has changed immensely- which has brought about certain benefits, of course, but has also made the future of work look a little uncertain. Working from home means more convenience and flexibility for many. But since working virtually is new for most, it can result in miscommunication and potentially create new types of conflict between coworkers as companies go digital. This creates a new set of considerations for office politics, which is something that won’t go away just because of the digital transition.

Working from home means that colleagues have less opportunities to iron out differences and resolve conflict face-to-face, which could lead to a build-up of resentment and frustration. Nuances in communication such as nonverbal cues can be easily lost over emails and video calls.

This might all seem unpleasant, but it’s important to face: Left unchecked, nasty office politics have the potential to decrease morale, team cohesion and productivity. 

Office politics may be reduced to a certain extent due to less face-to-face time with colleagues, but office politics will still be around, though in a slightly different form. But don't despair! Office politics can be managed while working remotely, just as they could before the COVID crisis. Here are the 6 best practices to keep in mind while managing office politics in a remote setting.

1. Identify the type of conflict

According to research by the American Psychological Association[1]  and Keith Ferrazzi[2] , who has been studying remote team conflicts since 2014, it is important to know the difference between task conflicts and relationship conflicts in order to resolve them. The former deals with task-related concerns such as time management and quality of work, and is much easier to solve. The latter involves personality issues and even philosophical differences, and is much more difficult to resolve. Repeated task conflicts can lead to relationship conflicts, too. So think about all the video calls, emails and consider: What’s really underlying these troubling dynamics I see in my workplace? Identify the type of conflict you’re facing and establish the context so that you can pick an appropriate way of addressing the conflict. Tackle conflicts quickly and communicate respectfully about changes to be made going forward.

2. Don’t avoid conflict

It’s tempting to fall back into avoidance rather than ironing things out openly and earnestly, especially in the case of relationship conflicts. But employees often end up quitting their jobs due to the inability to get along with their superiors[1] , which shows that it’s important to nip problems early in the bud when they first arise. Also, if you handle conflicts right, they can accelerate improvements in terms of how things get done- take conflict as a potential opportunity to improve your work processes and teamwork!

3. Watch out for things getting personal

The reduced face-to-face contact means that conflicts are less likely to develop in the first place, but it also stunts the formation of empathy for your colleagues. Task conflicts can develop into relationship conflicts, and personal issues are tricky to resolve online. According to Ann Majchrzak, professor at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business[1] , one way to resolve this is to have an online discussion board in a shared virtual workspace. By having an easily accessible board, issues can be tackled swiftly and efficiently so that problems don’t fester. The nature of online discussions also make it easier for coworkers lower in the workplace hierarchy to express concerns and be heard, whereas these same employees would be much more likely to be peer pressured into being agreeable and stay quiet in traditional face-to-face meetings.

4. Make use of technological tools to help you!

Having an online log also helps to build transparency and in turn, trust. Tech tools can help to build an open culture where task concerns and conflicts can be fairly tackled based on technicalities, rather than bias and politics. [1] Also, online workspaces keep records of past exchanges. That means that your team can reduce ambiguity and confusion by just referring back to the shared workspace- no more hang-ups over who said and did what!

5. Keep things direct and transparent

Other than addressing conflicts as quickly as you can, confronting and exposing unsavoury politics directly has a chilling effect on practices such as gossip and backstabbing in your team.  To communicate transparently, be upfront and honest, and offer to play arbitrator if that’s what’s needed. These practices are ideal even under normal circumstances, but in a remote working environment where the chance of miscommunication is higher, keeping things clear would be extra helpful.

6. Maintain personal boundaries.

Today, it’s often the case that your home is your workplace and your workplace is your home. individuals need to protect their personal boundaries by making sure that they have adequate rest time and time spent with loved ones. In order to make sure that workers don’t feel ‘on’ all the time, managers could offer support in respecting these personal boundaries. There are bound to be moments of conflict and frustration, even with good management. These moments of downtime will allow employees to get refreshed, so that they’ll be able to put their best foot forward when they show up to work. Letting problems from work seep into rest time? Sounds like a recipe for burnout in the long term.

Working remotely can have its challenges with regards to navigating office politics, given how new everyone is to going digital. But with some tips and practice managing conflicts, your team might just end up a stronger team after navigating and resolving conflicts together!

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