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5 Common Causes of Digital Workplace Friction

6 minute read
Kaya Ismail avatar
Conflict is inevitable, whether it's in the digital as well as the physical workplace. Here's how leaders can stay one step ahead of potential trouble spots.

Internal conflicts can cause significant problems for businesses. Studies have shown that the average employee spends approximately 2.8 hours a week dealing with conflict and friction. Considering average pay in the US, this amounts to $359 billion in lost productivity according to one report.

Whether in a remote, hybrid or onsite workplace, conflict represents a significant hit to the bottom line — and one that is ever harder to swallow amid a tight labor market, supply chain disruptions and rising wages. In some cases, conflict can even lead to staff leaving the organization in search of a more pleasant work experience somewhere else. 

Not only does the organization risk losing valuable, skilled and experienced employees, the recruitment costs can significantly drain a company's financial performance and suck up a lot of management and HR time. Considering the risks — loss of productivity, money and resources — leaders only stand to gain from nipping any potential source of unproductive conflict in the bud.

5 Potential Sources of Conflict — and How to Avoid Them

Today's workforce is composed of individuals with a wide variety of backgrounds, opinions, personalities and views of the world. Some degree of conflict in the workplace is inevitable. In fact, leaders should welcome it.

Amy Gallo, a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review, wrote that encouraging open dialogue and creative friction can produce better outcomes. A recent Reworked article also discusses the differences between healthy and unhealthy disagreements — and offers tips for handling dissent in the workplace. 

That said, it's important to understand the most common causes of workplace friction. Here are four potential sources:

1. Miscommunication

One of the most common sources of workplace friction — or any friction for that matter — is miscommunication. In a digital workplace, miscommunication is often the result of lost elements in messages. An email or text message can seldom accurately convey emotions, even with the use of emojis. The missing tone behind the message can make a world of difference in how a message is interpreted.

"Employees can misconstrue the tone behind others' typed-out messages due to the fact that they cannot hear the voices behind them," said Miles Beckett, CEO and co-founder of Los Angeles-based Flossy. Leaders should encourage employees who feel negatively toward a message they've received to follow up with the sender before jumping to a conclusion.

Related Article: How to Tackle Microaggressions in the Digital Workplace

2. Inequality

Tech giant Google recently warned that employees who choose to work from home could see their salaries reduced. The UK government issued a similar warning to civil servants who refused to return to the office.

Remote workers may end up being penalized for their choices, even when their productivity levels are higher than those working in the office. This can be a significant source of resentment and conflict among employees.

"A lack of interactions and unity, and not having access to the same opportunities are some of the potential reasons why there's a growing sense of resentment between remote and in-office workers," said Simon Elkjær, chief marketing officer at Grenaa, Denmark-based avXperten

Related Article: Handling Resentment Between Remote and In-office Staff

3. Too Many Tools

The sudden move to remote work meant many companies had to scramble to figure out how to make it work, including selecting the technology they would need. Some often picked the most affordable option available, only to later apply bandages where they had identified issues or weaknesses with the chosen technology.

The result is that employees now have access to numerous tools, some with overlap and some that do not communicate with one another. This can be a source of frustration and friction, duplicating work processes, increasing the risk of errors and causing missed communications.

Learning Opportunities

Meanwhile, employees are also expected to understand when and how to use every one of those tools, regardless of their technological skill and background. This can cause some workers to feel out of the loop and unable to keep up with employers' expectations of them.

Leaders should consider conducting an audit of their technologies and processes to find ways to simplify day-to-day tasks and perhaps even eliminate outdated or inefficient tools. In addition to helping employees see more clearly through the tech clutter, doing so can also help cut costs and improve productivity. 

Related Article: New Wave of Collaboration Apps Look to Cover All Team Collaboration Needs

4. Lack of Inclusion

Many remote workers continue to be excluded from meetings that take place in the office, especially the impromptu ones such as a quick team huddle by a worker's desk for instance.

Limiting the interactions of remote workers — consciously or not — can lead to resentment toward management and colleagues. Some remote employees have, in fact, reported feeling marginalized and less important than in-office colleagues. Consider dialing in remote workers to impromptu meetings if possible, and always include them in regular meetings to alleviate this.

"Many people on remote teams need reassurances that they're an important part of the team as they work alone in their home office spaces," said Matt Zavadil, digital marketing coach at Nashville, Tenn.-based Growth Tools. "Communicate to them often, so they feel included."

Related Article: 5 Things Leaders Can Learn From Airbnb's Approach to Remote Work

5. Divided Mindsets

Despite pressure from employees, some leaders are demanding workers return to the office or run the risk of seeing their pay and benefits reduced. Some, like Elon Musk, are suggesting workers who choose not to return can seek employment elsewhere.

These threats can cause friction and resentment among employees. Workers who lose colleagues as a result of this all-or-nothing stance may become disengaged and may begin to question or distrust their employer. While it is up to the organization's leadership to determine the operating model they will adopt, communicating the decision in a respectful and transparent manner remains key to preserving a positive employee experience.

Similarly, leaders who choose to allow remote work must communicate the reasoning for their decision in a manner that gets full buy in, particularly from managers. Setting the tone at the top helps prevent middle managers from showing signs of partiality — even unintended — which can, in turn, fuel inequities and lead to dissent in the workplace.