Life looks different for most of us than it did a few weeks ago. The dramatic changes in the rhythm of our lives, the economic uncertainty, and the anxiety about health and safety are breeding grounds for stress and conflict. Here are a few things you can do to get ahead of conflict while working from home during the coronavirus pandemic.
To have water for her home, a woman had to walk down a hill every day, fill two pails with water from a pump, then carry them back up the long hill. It was strenuous work.
One of the pails had a small crack that slowly widened as time passed. Eventually, the pail said to the woman, “I must apologize for not doing my job well anymore. Half of my water has leaked out by the time you get me home each day. I think it’s time to replace me.”
The woman smiled at the pail and pointed to one side of their walking path. It was barren, with just a few weeds growing here and there. Then she pointed to the other side, which was filled with beautiful wildflowers. “Do you know why this side of the path has so many flowers while the other one doesn’t?” she asked the pail. “This is the side I carry you on. Your leak makes those flowers possible. Thank you.”
As with the pail in this old story, the stress of our new worldwide circumstances will cause small cracks to appear or widen. Cracks in our relationships. Cracks in our strength, in our kindness, in our wellbeing. Cracks in our professionalism.
We feel it in our home, too. My professor husband suddenly finds himself working from home for the first time in his life, given one week to turn all of his university courses into online courses for the remainder of the term. He’s missing his students and his colleagues. My speaking engagements are getting rescheduled, and my clients are moving to videoconferencing or getting canceled. I’m taking on more coaching clients and accepting no new mediation clients for the coming months. After 30 years we suddenly find ourselves together nearly 24/7, going our separate ways only to our respective home offices and during exercise.
Conflict while working from home may be inevitable, but you, your colleagues, and loved ones have the wherewithal to get upstream of conflict. Whether you’re managing a suddenly dispersed team working from home, or suddenly find yourself working in close quarters with your loved ones, here are five ways to position yourselves to cope with our unwelcome new reality:
1. Set initial parameters and be willing to adjust them
If you’re working from home for the first time or a loved one is, take a few minutes to consider parameters that will make the experience better. When are interruptions ok? Is all space shared or does everyone need their own little nook? The Wirecutter’s good list can get you started. I recommend that you think of them as initial parameters that may need adjusting instead of as rigid ground rules. Keep it simple, see what’s working and what isn’t, and agree on a time, maybe one or two weeks from now, to revisit and adjust as needed. The same concepts works if you’re leading a suddenly dispersed team.
2. Create a postcard from the future
This is about positioning yourself proactively instead of reactively. Meet with your team virtually or sit down with your family. Have everyone close their eyes for a moment and picture a time x weeks from now (choose your own timeline). Your remote work has been a resounding success. What made that possible? How did you work and live? Be as specific as possible. Share your individual visions with each other and use them to discuss how to bring out the best in yourselves during this trying time. Postcard from the future is adapted from an activity from design thinking company Ideo and takes a page from appreciative inquiry.
3. Agree in advance on a safe word
Zapier CEO Matt Bowers’ team uses a “safe word” when someone thinks a project is going off the rails. They chose pomegranate (because why not) and even have a pomegranate emoji to use in messages. Everyone knows what’s up when they see or hear the word, and because it’s a pomegranate, it’s lighthearted enough to help them ease into a conversation about potential disagreement. No need to limit this to work communications only; it’s useful with loved ones, too.
4. Develop a short list of fallback principles
Fallback principles are rules you can apply in order to make a decision when you disagree. When disagreements go long and you still can’t agree, continuing the debate can end up breeding greater frustration than some disagreements are worth. Having a fallback principle you’ve agreed upon in advance can rescue your day (not to mention your business or personal relationship). Here are 4 fallback principles I’ve written about before; maybe one or two of them will be handy right now or spark a new idea for handling conflict while working from home.
5. Remember the cracked pail
We can choose to focus narrowly on problems caused by the cracks or we can consciously widen our perspective to notice also benefits from those cracks. The colleague who seems to spend way too much time on Slack is also the one everyone turns to when they need help using the platform. Your partner, who keeps interrupting you with the latest COVID-19 news while you’re trying to work, is also a reliable source of the latest information for your safety. I’ve had to give myself a few attitude adjustments in recent days and have no doubt more will be needed. I placed this image on the refrigerator; click to download your own copy: