Returning to work comes with its hurdles – employees’ differing view on COVID-19 being one of them. Here’s how to facilitate conflict resolution in an emotionally charged environment.
In the states starting to emerge from months in lockdown, there will be plenty of people cheering as their freedoms are restored, but there will also be people who are anxious about returning to work and re-entering society.
The combination of these two groups in the workplace can breed fertile ground for COVID-19-related conflict.
Heading back to the office comes with a range of challenges. From the minor things, such as remembering to bring your mask or finding out your favourite lunch spot has closed, to the bigger hurdles, like setting up sanitizing workstations and maintaining social distancing rules.
As this will be an adjustment period for many, these issues will need to be approached with care and respect. But the reality is, that won’t always be the case.
The most recent lockdowns in NSW and Victoria have been much more politically and emotionally charged than we saw in 2020, with protestors taking to the streets and vaccination approaches dividing many communities.
Employers need to be aware of this context because while this conflict might not be directly related to the workplace, returning employees could very well bring their strong views back with them.
Last week, HRM unpacked the three different types of conflict that can occur in the workplace, now we’re diving into COVID-19 related conflicts, and offering tips to address them.
Quick Do’s and Don’ts
Don’t have time to read the whole story? Here’s a quick guide from Nina Harding, Director at Nina Harding Mediation Services.
The shifting landscape of workplace conflict
It could be assumed that an employee who doesn’t enjoy working in teams, or perhaps has an ongoing feud with another employee, might thrive working at home. They’re separated from the issue, so problem solved, right?
Not necessarily, says Harding. In fact, in her experience, the number of conflict complaints have risen.
“There’s also a really high level of uncertainty for a lot of people at the moment which is driving up conflict.”
Large amounts of uncertainty can change our personalities by increasing neuroticism, and decreasing agreeableness and conscientiousness, research has found. Less agreeable people are more likely to perceive incivility or rudeness in situations, which is kindling for workplace conflict.
This current uncertainty is compounded by the other anxieties employees are feeling. They may have sick family members, they might know people stuck overseas, or they just might be at their wits end with lockdown.
“We’re a bit shorter and a bit sharper [with others] when we’re anxious,” says Harding.
In this context, employees who are returning to the office might be feeling a bit more on edge than usual. If they are then faced with a colleague who holds opposing views about important issues, such as the vaccine or mask mandates, that could result in an explosive argument.
“Value driven conflict is difficult to resolve because we don’t quickly change our values. And we often believe that our values and beliefs should be how everyone sees the world,” says Harding.
But these aren’t insurmountable hurdles, says Harding. With the right frameworks in place, HR can create environments that respect everyone’s views without allowing them to descend into arguments.
Addressing conflict when returning to work
To get a handle on managing conflict in this new environment, Harding shares some advice.
- Become comfortable with conflict
It’s very Australian to hope conflict will go away on its own, says Harding. Our ‘She’ll be right’ attitude, combined with the assumption that disagreements can be solved with a yarn over a schooner, is a nice idea, but not alway realistic. Being conflict avoidant will only make the issue worse.
“The earlier that you deal with conflict the better,” she says.
A small squabble between employees might not be the most pressing issue for some employers right now. But pushing it aside ignores how employees are feeling, which can result in bigger problems.
“I’ve been in mediation sessions where the employees say, ‘We raised this issue [with our manager] back in May and we’re only seeing you now,” says Harding.
“That’s months of anxiety for these people. Who knows how it could have been impacting their work or productivity, not to mention their mental health.”
If you don’t have the time to deal with the conflict on your own, you should be bringing support, says Harding, such as an external mediator.
However, if it’s not an issue of a lack of time, but rather an unwillingness to deal with the issue, then you need to learn to become comfortable with conflict, she says.
A lot of conflict avoidance is caused by the perception that the conflict is bigger than it actually is, says Harding. Sometimes all it needs is a conversation.
For example, in one conflict Harding mediated a manager had misunderstood an employee and thought they blamed them for a recent workplace injury.
The manager took extreme measures to avoid this employee, going so far as to change the employee’s work schedule. This change caused a lot of disruption for the employee and began impacting their relationships with other staff members.
Months later, when Harding got the two into a room together, the manager found the employee did not blame the manager at all.
“Once that way cleared up all the other issues went away almost overnight,” says Harding.
“Sometimes tackling the issue head on can be the circuit breaker needed to get everyone back on track.”
“If it’s a strong value, such as an opinion on the vaccine, then you’re unlikely to change their mind. They’ll just become defensive.” – Nina Harding, Director at Nina Harding Mediation Services
- Be an ostentatious listener
Most employees aren’t going to have these conversations on their own. As an HR manager or leader, you may need to facilitate them – at least initially. To do that you need to become what Harding calls an “ostentatious listener”.
“This means listening with your whole self,” she says.
The reason it’s ‘ostentatious’ is because there is a showiness to this kind of listening. Ostentatious listeners nod their head as others speak. They use conversational fillers – hmms and ahh – at appropriate times. And, importantly, they repeat back what they’ve heard to show they’re listening and understand what has been said.
“This is even more important in a video conflict resolution meeting,” says Harding.
“We often forgive people for being a bit distracted in video calls, but you really need to demonstrate that you are paying attention so people are comfortable opening up.”
If someone involved in the conflict meeting doesn’t feel like they’re being heard, they might become resentful or uncooperative.
“Remove all the distractions, make sure people can see your face so they can gauge your expressions; really show you are present,” says Harding.
By being an ostentatious listener, you also create an environment where people feel comfortable to speak. Thanking participants for raising the issue, avoiding blaming anyone and being open to solutions are all part of this, says Harding.
In terms of addressing contentious issues, she says to never attack someone’s values in a conflict resolution meeting.
“If it’s a strong value, such as an opinion on the vaccine, then you’re unlikely to change their mind. They’ll just become defensive.”
Instead make it clear that you’re there to listen and find a resolution that suits everyone.
- Take the lead in conflict resolution
If a manager is struggling to solve a problem, or just brushing it off completely, Harding says it is important HR step in to either mediate the problem or engage an expert.
“If an employee’s manager can’t deal with the conflict then they should be able to come to HR,” says Harding. “HR can take the lead in not letting conflict be ignored.”
Part of a mediator’s role is to give people the tools to solve their own conflicts in the future. HR professionals should pass these on to employees and leaders, so they’re fully equipped to deal with these issues internally and don’t have to come running to HR each time they need support.
“It’s fundamental that employers have the right to skills to solve conflict. If they don’t they could make the situation worse,” says Harding.
In this current divisive climate, employees are looking for reassurance; they want to be heard. HR can become an important source of that reassurance.
Conflict resolution requires knowing how to have difficult conversations. Improve your skills with AHRI’s short course. Sign up to the next session on 19 November.