The preferred in-person touch, a handshake © UNOMS

UNOMS: navigating conflict resolution dynamics in the UN
Balancing virtual innovation with the preferred in-person touch
1 Mar 2024

The Office of the United Nations Ombudsman and Mediation Services (UNOMS) plays a pivotal role in facilitating conflict resolution in the workplace. Serving as an independent, neutral, confidential and informal resource, UNOMS empowers personnel across the UN Secretariat to address workplace issues through informal conflict resolution services.

With a decentralized presence in eight locations worldwide, UNOMS’ Terms of Reference underscore a commitment to inclusivity and accessibility for all personnel, regardless of their location. The offices in New York, Bangkok, Entebbe, Geneva, Goma, Nairobi, Santiago and Vienna, along with frequent mission-visits by ombudsmen and mediators to other regional locations, reflect an understanding that conflict resolution is crucial for maintaining a cohesive and collaborative work atmosphere, irrespective of geographical boundaries and time zones.

The year of 2020 brought unprecedented challenges with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing organizations, including the United Nations, to reevaluate how to carry out their work in a digital space. In response, UNOMS swiftly adapted, undergoing a rapid transition towards virtual platforms to ensure the uninterrupted provision of its services. The new working modalities also enabled a more flexible and inclusive approach to the way UNOMS operates, allowing UN personnel, regardless of their geographical location or pandemic-related restrictions, to access conflict resolution services remotely. Ultimately, this shift, prompted by the immediate challenges of the pandemic, has positioned UNOMS to meet the evolving needs of a dynamic and globalized workforce in the long-term.

Today, UN personnel scattered across different time zones and working modalities can engage with UNOMS without the constraints of physical proximity. The adoption of virtual communication tools, online mediation platforms, and secure digital channels has not only made conflict resolution more convenient, but has also expanded UNOMS’ capacity to raise awareness around the informal resolution of conflicts. This commitment aligns with the General Assembly’s resolution to promote informal conflict resolution as a first step, whenever possible, regardless of the location of personnel.

Addressing workplace conflicts is a tricky time for colleagues, but UNOMS makes this process smooth and easy © Pixabay

Virtual or hybrid solutions in conflict resolution provide notable advantages. By leveraging virtual interactions, UNOMS ensures equitable access to its services and outreach campaigns, addressing the unique needs of personnel in distant duty stations who might face challenges in accessing information on and services for the informal resolution of conflict. Hybrid missions have represented a valuable option to overcome barriers imposed by unforeseen circumstances, such as changes in geopolitical situations, or security threats. Hybrid solutions can also reduce direct and opportunity costs associated with travel for participants, ombudsmen, and colleagues covering during absences. Furthermore, UNOMS practitioners have observed that virtual workplace conflict resolution may in some instances increase the likelihood of favorable outcomes, particularly when severe workplace relationships breakdown, and bringing parties together in physical proximity may be counterproductive. In these cases, virtual interaction can prevent hostility and facilitate settlements. Finally, online interactions may offer an enhanced sense of privacy for parties engaging from their homes or offices.

On the other hand, despite the evident benefits, there are some challenges associated with virtual approaches to conflict resolution. Extended virtual mediations, especially within a day full of on-screen meetings, can be more exhausting than face-to-face interactions. Lastly, the lack of easily readable body language, which can be so valuable when parties and an ombudsman are meeting in the same room, is a challenge in virtual interactions. Building rapport online is a very different proposition compared to doing so in-person.

Undoubtedly, digital platforms have enhanced UNOMS’ outreach and expanded its range of operations, by increasing awareness of its mandate and services. However for UNOMS, the in-person approach remains the preferred method for dealing with workplace conflicts. Personal connection and the nuanced nature of conflict resolution allow for a more comprehensive understanding of the issues at hand and foster a sense of trust and empathy among those involved.

In conclusion, UNOMS remains dedicated to striking a balance between virtual innovation and the irreplaceable touch of in-person interactions, ensuring that conflict resolution dynamics in the new UN environment are navigated with utmost consideration and effectiveness. 

* Charles Chauvel is Regional Ombudsman for Asia and the Pacific.
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