Conflict, Communication, and Covid-19: the impacts of the pandemic in the workplace

By Deanna Lanoway, Vice President – HR Consulting

As Canada begins to resurface from its 18-month encounter with the Covid-19 pandemic, employers and employees are taking the time to reflect on how this pandemic has impacted their organizations — both positively and negatively. Through the pandemic, our HR Consultants have partnered with employers and employees, and are now shifting to help businesses identify and address the after-effects of the pandemic. As our clients start the long-awaited process of returning to their new ‘normal’, we encourage everyone to pause to reflect and reassess strengths and opportunities for success.   

Although this pandemic brought on unprecedented challenges for businesses, the positive outcomes should be celebrated, and built on as we move forward. We are seeing new opportunities for work-life balance through hybrid or work-from-home models, increased efficiencies in business operations, and adaptability from employers and employees; driven by resourceful approaches to business differentiation, increased customer and stakeholder focus, and the ever-present strong survival instinct. 

People First HR is happy to celebrate these positive results and opportunities with our clients, however, all change comes at a price — even if this is realized later. We’ve been hearing about the negative impacts in the form of increased requests for support related to conflict, complaints, and culture across workplaces during the pandemic. Many of these concerns have a direct link to changing business practice and the work environment, brought on by necessary responses to the pandemic. The old saying that nothing unites like a common enemy has not rung true for many.

Although the virus presents a common enemy for individuals, organizations, and communities, it feels like it has divided us, not brought us closer. Why has this been happening, and what can we do about it?

Assessing your conflict style

Photo of a woman who looks anxious

Understanding ourselves is the best place to begin addressing tension or conflict in the workplace. There are many ways to assess your conflict style, but in the most basic form styles differ in the degree of avoidance or engagement. The widely known ‘fight or flight’ response to stress can easily be applied to how employees experience and respond to conflict within the workplace. 

Employees who respond to conflict with flight may quietly gossip, withhold information, avoid the other individual(s), slow down their work, be absent, or decide to quit. Generally, they use activities intended to get them away from their adversaries. Employees with a tendency to fight might seek to get others onto their ‘side’, raise their voice, place blame, threaten, or escalate to a leader – activities intended to defeat their adversaries.  

Your employees’ responses to conflict can create other side effects that impact the overall culture within your organization. If any of these fight or flight responses to conflict sound familiar to you – it may be time to re-evaluate how conflict is addressed within your workplace.   

Managing conflict productively

Individuals can gain skills in managing conflict productively, no matter their natural tendency. Leaders can help employees identify conflict within their working relationships and give them the tools and support to effectively overcome conflict in the workplace.  

A focus on optimal communications within the group is foundational to conflict management, and it’s one thing that has suffered in almost every workplace during the pandemic, whether employees are working in the office or remotely. 

In the fall of 2020, Communications Researcher Tim Levine (University of Alabama) was quoted in the UAB News saying that “There is some interesting and important research on the effects of social isolation on communication. One impact is that, the less contact we have with other people, the more we become suspicious of other people. This can make others more defensive and lead to a vicious spiral where isolation leads to suspicion, which begets defensiveness, which reinforces the suspicion and leads to further isolation as a self-fulfilling prophesy.”

Photo of three women in a virtual meeting.

Employees working from home, or in new shift patterns to create distance, are experiencing less contact with their colleagues. Essential workers who have been in the workplace all along are likely to have experienced a similar separation in their home and social lives, even if they have not been distanced from coworkers.  

Distance is impacting the way employees communicate with one another. Employees working from home are spending copious amounts of time in virtual meetings, where facial expressions can be gauged, but may not be an accurate representation of how people feel. Essential employees may still speak in person, but through masks, facial expressions and some of the tone of voice is lost. Distance can create space for miscommunication, frustration, conflict, and in turn, a deteriorating workplace culture.  

Lead by example to support your organization’s culture 

To help support your organization’s culture and your employees, take some time to speak to your employees about what effective communication looks like, modeling this behaviour in your communication.

Leaders should encourage open conversation about issues that arise and create a safe space for employees to communicate when they are experiencing conflict at work. Exploring different perspectives in group discussions can help your team normalize healthy, constructive conflict to encourage early and respectful conversations when issues do arise.  

It is important to remember how effective communication can not only help us to avoid conflict in the first place, but also set the stage for a quick and painless resolution of conflicts in the workplace.  

If your organization is feeling the effects of the pandemic on your workplace culture and employee relationships, our HR Consultants are available to help with a customized approach that fits your organization’s needs. Contact us to get started.