HR leaders beware: Workplace conflict will be on the rise – and leaders will need to help employees regain harmony.
Unfortunately, many companies that are returning to the workplace are on a collision course with strife. Nearly 74% of companies plan to have employees back on-site this fall, and about 40% of their leaders anticipate conflict, according to the LaSalle Network Re-Entry Index.
“While planning for office re-entry, businesses should expect some degree of backlash, as there is no one policy that can please every employee,” the LaSalle researchers said.
The sources for conflict abound. Employees have issues with their employers, colleagues and bosses. Some aren’t happy about a return to work and others resent anyone who remains remote. People will have differing views on vaccination. And many employees have forgotten proper workplace etiquette.
Even companies that continue with remote or hybrid work models aren’t immune. About 80% of employees in a MyPerfectResume survey said they’ve experienced conflict while working remotely.
“Don’t wait until a problem arises to help supervisors and managers learn to recognize and deal with situations that are not only disruptive, but also pose significant compliance risk to the organization,” says Melissa Gonzalez Boyce, JD, Legal Editor, XpertHR. “Advance preparation is the key to minimizing the potential for conflicts in the future.”
HR pros and leaders at all levels will want to take steps now to prevent workplace conflict. Or they’ll need to mitigate it when it hits.
Here are five strategies to deal with the rise in conflict.
Communicate early, often and again
Leaders can head off workplace conflict with transparency. The more employees know about the transition to the office and expectations the more likely they’ll be at ease. And when they’re at ease, they’re less likely to spark tension.
“Nothing should be a surprise to employees,” said Tom Gimbel, Founder and CEO of LaSalle Network. “It helps lower anxiety levels and gives employees ample time to ask questions and mentally prepare. Employees need time to reacclimate.”
Prepare the front line
Give front-line managers a guide, manual or training practice at handling real-time conflict. After all, they’re the most likely to stand in the middle of employees in conflict.
Get them started with real-life examples.
“If employees are arguing about vaccines, redirect them,” suggests Gonzalez Boyce. “Stop and say something like, ‘Look, everyone has their own ideas on this topic. That’s not why we’re here. We’re at work, so that’s where our focus should be. How are things going with …?'”
Another real-world example she offers:
“If employees engage in name-calling – anti-vaxxer, sheep, etc. – instruct them to stop and refocus on work,” says Gonzalez Boyce. “Advise them that such communication is unprofessional and/or a violation of the code of conduct. Follow disciplinary procedures and document the incident as you would any other similar violation.”
You might want to review existing policies and practices that govern workplace behavior so front-line managers can cite violations and “keep emotion out of their handling of the situation,” she says.
Nearly 60% of employees are worried about having awkward conversations along the lines of vaccinations, safety, flexibility and not wanting to return to work, a Harvard Business School study found.
Guess what employees do when leaders don’t have these uncomfortable conversations? They fill the unknown with worst-case scenarios, gossip and resentment.
“In today’s world, communication is key to relay an organization’s position on critical issues affecting the workplace,” says Gonzalez Boyce.
Leaders want to be candid so there’s less room for negative talk. HBS offers these tips for those tough talks:
- Prepare for the “hazardous half minute.” Researchers said the first 30 seconds of difficult conversations are the worst. The anxiety over where it will go eats away at people. So plan to use that time to create a “psychological safe place.” Acknowledge it’ll be a difficult conversation and how you’ll keep it even-spirited and productive.
- Know the priorities. You can’t control the outcome of difficult conversations. But you can control how they’re executed. Make empathy, curiosity and understanding the emotional priorities.
- Plan for the risks. Difficult conversations present risks: Employees might react irrationally. You might hear things that drastically affect decisions. You can’t plan for all negative consequences, but you can plan how you react to them. Prepare to remain calm, take notes, delay decisions and reactions if the worst arises.
Get the gang back together
Try to build harmony before discourse and workplace conflict sets in.
You might give front-line managers the resources to hold regular team building events and training to help employees reconnect. Give them access to activities and projects to strengthen camaraderie.
For instance, LaSalle Network hosted new-hire happy hours at the office before everyone returned so they could tour the office and meet leaders.
You might want to offer companywide training on transitioning back into the office. Include reminders on procedures and updates on new protocols.
Another idea that worked at LaSalle Network: They created mental health support groups, led by licensed therapists, for any employee who was interested.
Maintain a ‘clean break’
Many employees complained that one disadvantage of working from home was they lost the clear line between work and life. With a return to work, you can help cut workplace conflict by maintaining that boundary.
When employees separate from work they have time to recharge and relax. With that, they’re more focused, amicable and able to handle conflict.
So leaders want to set the example: Don’t send messages – or expect responses – outside of work hours. Regularly check on employees’ workload: Can they maintain a healthy balance? Monitor teams to be sure people collaborate professionally, fairly and within company protocols.
Employees who are satisfied at work – and can break from it to maintain a healthy personal life – are less likely to be involved in conflict.