By Elizabeth Rosa

Founder and Principal, Resolve at Work

Mediator looking at zoom screen during a virtual business meeting

Last year, at virtual mediation conferences I attended and workshops I ran, I often heard people ask, “What is the contribution of COVID to conflict in the workplace?”

This is a good question and of course, there are many answers. In the mediations that I conducted early on during the pandemic, the impact of COVID was not necessarily apparent. But now, two years on, the picture is much clearer. COVID has put enormous stresses on staff, which have contributed to conflict or have even created conflict.

How has COVID contributed to conflict? Because it necessitated sudden change. And sudden change will often reveal cracks or weaknesses in staff cohesion, management or internal communication. Workplaces need to be functioning well and to be resilient to withstand the barrages of sudden change. Unexpected change causes confusion as management quickly responds to government and corporate directives, to decide how they are going to manage the workplace and its staff.

This brings me to the question of what does a workplace need to have in place to deal with sudden change? The answer is great managers:

- Managers who can respond to change quickly

- Managers who can “think outside the square” and propose creative options

- Managers who are prepared to have courageous conversations with staff

- Managers who work hard at ensuring all changes are communicated well to all staff, as well as promptly and regularly

- Managers who ensure that staff understand the changes

- Managers who look at the impact of the changes on the staff and ensure that, at a micro level, staff are able to raise concerns about the impact and are given support to adapt to the changes.

However, organisations rarely tick all of these boxes, even during what would be considered ‘normal’ times.

Accordingly, any change, such as COVID, will create stress on teams who are already struggling to feel supported in their roles. For staff, sudden change will perpetuate existing vulnerabilities:

- Feeling overworked

- Feeling like they have no input into manager’s decisions

- Feeling unheard

- Feeling like they are not appreciated for their skills

- Feeling like they are not appreciated for their experience

- Feeling like managers and/or other staff don’t treat them with respect

- Feeling that they are not treated equitably by management

COVID in effect is like a grenade being thrown in the workplace. It exposes and heightens all existing vulnerabilities and conflict.

As managers and staff try to cope with the increased conflict that COVID brings, they may become time-poor, as much time is taken up dealing with the operational changes and impacts that COVID and government directives require.

In the mediations I have recently been involved in, staff have made comments such as, “We had these problems and then COVID happened.” This is short-hand for, “This crisis made things so much worse and we lost the ability to resolve the conflict we had pre- COVID.”

The take-away from this is that in a mediation, staff need to recognize that their relationships have been affected by COVID. In other words, that COVID has been an extreme stressor on them. I can help them to try to untangle what conflict was due to COVID and what was pre-existing. This way, they can look at what relational vulnerabilities were there before COVID. This will help direct them to consider how they can strengthen the areas of vulnerability and create more resilient workplace relationships.

The following questions in pre-mediation meetings could help:

- Was there ever a time that you had a good workplace relationship with the other staff member? If so, what was that like?

- What was your workplace relationship like before COVID?

- What is it like now?

- Do you think that the changes created by COVID have impacted your work? If so, how?

- Do you think that the changes created by COVID have impacted your relationship? If so, how?

- What sort of relationship would you like to have now? What would it look like?

Of course, apart from sudden change, COVID has affected staff for other reasons as well:

Staff working from home have less face-to-face time with managers and colleagues. Remote working can lead to lack of communication between teams, and reduces the chance for incidental chat in the corridor, and opportunities to strengthen relationships are missed.

Staff battling with managing their families at home at the same time as working can make people tired and stressed, and therefore more vulnerable to misunderstandings, which then leads to conflict. Teams have to grapple with new ways of working – particularly the use of technology – which takes up time and may be frustrating. Remember when we all had to get used to Zoom? Finally, COVID has meant increased uncertainty over job security; if an employer’s business has been adversely impacted by COVID, this adds further to stress levels.

For the mediator dealing with the fallout of COVID, the challenge is to have sufficient time in pre-mediation meetings to unpack all the stressors that it has created. But it can be beneficial to the staff member if they reflect on what conflict and stress COVID has caused them, compared to their work life pre-COVID. Now, as we wait and hope for a ‘post-COVID‘ world, we can assist staff in mediations to consider what they do want for their workplace relationships and how they may ultimately be stronger after the COVID crisis.

For more information about the skills you need as a workplace mediator :

Elizabeth Rosa is a Nationally Accredited Mediator, a Workshop Facilitator and the Founder of Resolve at Work.