This scenario probably sounds familiar:

When she was in the office, Alison walked to and from meetings with a few trusted colleagues. Their conversations during these walks, where they answered each other’s questions, shared ideas and reviewed decisions, added as much value as the meetings themselves. When Alison packed up her laptop and moved into her home office for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, the “meeting before the meeting” and “meeting after the meeting” practice disappeared, and team communication suffered as a result.

The pandemic has taught us how much engagement and productivity depend on work relationships — and how tenuous those relationships are. Working as a team was often dependent on seeing each other in person, and even with every digital collaboration technology at our fingertips, we haven’t yet learned how to leverage our relationships in the virtual environment.

As the way we work in offices undergoes another transformation from temporarily remote to permanently remote, hybrid, fully on-site or a flexible combination of the three, many leaders are realizing the importance of relationships at work. Now, they need to learn how to develop relationships so that teams become more effective within meetings of all kinds. Here are some strategies leaders can put into action today.

Build Motive-based Relationships

The most effective teams have high relationship intelligence, meaning that each person understands and honors what matters most to the other people on the team. Team members want to contribute in different ways when collaborating, and they seek different outcomes based on their motives. When people understand why they behave the way they do and how they relate to each other, collaboration becomes more productive, and conflict declines.

People are driven by three primary motives:

  • Concern for people: People with this primary motive are motivated by the protection, growth and welfare of others. They have a strong desire to help people who can genuinely benefit from their help.
  • Concern for performance: These people are motivated by accomplishing tasks and achieving results. They have a strong desire to set goals, take decisive action and claim rewards.
  • Concern for process: These people are motivated by meaningful order and thinking things through. They have a strong desire to pursue independent interests, to be practical and to be fair.

Although everyone has all three motives, each person prioritizes them in different ways, making them unique. And, their motives show up differently when things are going well and when they experience conflict.

Teams with high relationship intelligence work just as well over videoconferences as they do in person. Teams with low relationship intelligence have suboptimal communication no matter how they’re meeting. In the office, they rely on workarounds such as the meeting after the meeting and hobble along for years instead of fixing the problems with their relationship dynamics. The lack of personal connection or the transactional nature of relationships is exposed with remote work, as in the example with Alison.

When people understand their own, as well as their colleagues’, motives, they can come to a meeting knowing how to bring the best out of each person. Then, the meeting becomes productive, and the meeting after the meeting turns into a time for healthy socializing.

Learn to Recognize Signs of Conflict in Other People

A key element of relationship intelligence is the ability to recognize and manage conflict when it comes up — because, inevitably, it will. But people display signs of conflict in different ways, and they aren’t always good at recognizing when a co-worker is becoming frustrated.

In addition, remote work has introduced a host of new opportunities for workplace conflict. People hired remotely have never met the rest of the team in person, so they may feel like they’re on the outside of an established dynamic. The tension-diffusing moments in the breakroom or at happy hours are gone, so resentments can percolate.

If you become irritated with a colleague during an in-person meeting, there’s a natural opportunity to touch base with them afterward and restore your faith in their best intentions. But people need to put more thought and effort into relationships in a remote or hybrid setting to counteract these pitfalls.

When people cultivate awareness of their own, and their colleagues’, values, strengths and signs of conflict, they can keep conflict in the sphere of healthy opposition and treat it as an opportunity for adaptation, growth and learning — not as a threat to what matters most to them.

Practice Inclusive Communication

Another reason relationship intelligence is so important is that not everyone communicates, or wants to be communicated to, in the same way. In North America, for example, we tend to view the most outspoken people in the meeting as the most engaged. But that’s not necessarily the case. In particular, people with more analytical motives can remain quiet as they take in information. When leaders recognize this tendency, they can give more analytical team members an opportunity to follow up once they’ve had time to think.

Video calls present an advantage for inclusive communication because people can speak, type in the chat box, send their thoughts or questions ahead of time, and virtually raise their hand. And, meeting facilitators can unmute people one at a time so everyone has the opportunity to speak.

Recognition is another type of communication where relationship intelligence plays a role. Recognition affects employee engagement, and leaders should realize that thanking employees for their contribution isn’t enough; they also need to recognize them in a way that speaks to their motives.

Make Work a Source of Energy

One of the main reasons employee engagement scores are low nationwide is that we treat work as a drain on, rather than a source of, energy. But people can be energized when they find meaning in their work. Connecting our work to our primary motives makes work more meaningful in a real and sustainable way. As the job market tightens, employees are realizing that if their need for meaning isn’t met, they can go to a different employer.

Remote work is here to stay. The leaders and organizations that will thrive are the ones that can figure out how to use digital technology and the remote environment to deepen working relationships, improve collaboration and make work more meaningful.

Teams with relationship intelligence are more engaged, more productive, less conflict-ridden and happier than teams that are unaware of each other’s motives and strengths. As your workplace transitions into its next iteration, improve team performance by making motives and relationships part of your company’s language.