How to stop Coronavirus causing workplace conflict

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 Even before businesses went into lockdown, the strain was beginning to show in workplaces across the country. Conflict management expert David Liddle wrote then about keeping the peace and his advice rings ever more true as more of us are forced to find new ways of working – remotely and together.

Picture the scene. One of your employees is struggling to work because their children’s school has been closed.  A major deadline is looming.  Now colleagues are questioning why they have to ‘pick up the slack.’

Or maybe team members are worried that they will be perceived as inefficient because they are not visible, so start sending emails at all hours to prove that they are actually working. This soon causes everyone to become burned out, stressed and less trusting of one another.

It’s not hard to see how the unfolding Coronavirus situation has the potential to cause bad feeling, or at the very worst, outright conflict, at work. Staff will naturally have opposing views about what actions should be taken.

Some will be unfazed – perhaps even delighted – at the idea of working from home and will want to carry on pretty much as normal, while others will be extremely anxious about working in isolation.

The impact of disputes in an SME, where staff numbers are small and people work closely together, can be extremely damaging. Relationships become fractured, stress levels rise and productivity takes a nose-dive.

If innovation is highly prized in the business, then staff are more likely to embrace ‘out of the box’ ideas

At the same time, the business owner is faced with the difficult task of trying to balance the need for business continuity (or possibly even survival) with their duty of care to their employees.

So what actions can an SME owner take to avoid conflict and navigate these difficult times?

If the business (and the owner) is clear about their corporate (and personal) values, they can use these as a guide to help them make ‘right’ decision. If innovation is highly prized in the business, then staff are more likely to embrace ‘out of the box’ ideas about how they can continue to deliver the goods for clients, even if it means working in ways they are unfamiliar with.

If employee wellbeing is a core value, then it’s clear that owners won’t want to pressurise staff to take part in activities or events that they feel uncomfortable with, and will avoid making them feel they are letting people down if they are unable to meet a tight deadline for personal reasons.

It’s really important that people are given the opportunity to talk openly about how they are currently feeling – and to feel that they have been listened to.

Transparency helps people to see that they are not necessarily alone in the way they are feeling

Having regular, honest dialogue about the situation gives owner/managers the opportunity to reassure people, to add a sense of perspective, and to spot the signs of conflict or unrest and tackle it early.

This kind of transparency also helps people to see that they are not necessarily alone in the way they are feeling, and encourages employees to pull together and support each other.

The owner/manager will of course have to make the final call on big decisions, such as whether introduce reduced working hours for a short time. But involving employees in these decisions can be really valuable.

People who are on the front line will be in the best position to advise on which suppliers might be vulnerable to disruption, how clients or customers are likely to react to interruptions to service and how best to mitigate some of the practical challenges that will arise from social distancing policies being brought into force.

If people feel they have been consulted and are part of the solution, they are much more likely to buy in willingly to whatever has been decided.

In an uncertain and rapidly unfolding situation, it is vital that owner-managers keep employees informed about the challenges they are facing and what decisions have been made (and why).

it’s important to support staff with what may be a very alien way of operating.

If an employee has tested positive for the virus, for example, or has been in close contact with someone else who has, people will need to be kept informed about what official advice has been taken, what the justification is for keeping the business open or closed, and what they personally need to do.

Equally, if all is well, employees will need to know what the contingency plan is in the event of Government containment measures being imposed or the business facing declining revenues. Regular communication will keep people focused on priorities, put a stop to gossip and rumours and will help to quell anxiety and lessen the likelihood of conflict arising.

The majority of companies have already introduced remote working in a bid to halt the spread of the virus among employees and protect business continuity. Of course that simply isn’t an option for some small businesses, who may have jobs that can’t be done remotely.

But if homeworking is introduced for all or some, it’s important to support staff with what may be a very alien way of operating. Staff need to be clear about who will be working and when, how inter-team communication will work, and how performance will be managed.

Those who are having to continue with customer contact, will need clear instructions on safe working practices, and if relevant, ‘distancing’ policies. If the ground rules are clear, and people feel supported, it will be much easier to keep team spirit high and ensure good working relationships are maintained.

David Liddle is CEO of the TCM Group (Total Conflict Management)