We rely on body language to communicate and establish trust with each other. That’s as true in work as anywhere else—to be able, for example, to rely on physical cues to gauge team morale or to on the fly lean in to the argument that seems to be most resonating to complete a sale.
Author Erica Dhawan argues that after many of us have spent more than a year of working primarily via screens, our physical body language is changing. “We are more likely to be impatient if someone doesn't get to the point in the room,” Dhawan says. “We've been reading emails for a year. We think in bullet points, we want people to speak in those bullet points, like a TV show host on a video screen.”
In addition, with remote and hybrid work, have been intermediated by Zoom, Slack, or other platforms. In their place, the digital cues that we give off and receive, consciously or not, in each email, text, or Slack message have become much more important.
To better understand how our communication has evolved and how to best manage that, I spoke recently with Dhawan, author of the recently released book Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection, No Matter the Distance. Here is a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity.
Are there areas of digital body language that individuals and organizations should have in mind as they anticipate hybrid work?
Absolutely. Sort of as a level setting as I dive into that question, the last 18 months has shown us more disruption and more forced innovation in how we work than in perhaps the last 10 years. Leaders that often never used digital tools have now seen them as business requirements. Teams that had never used more than an email or conference call have now tried over 10 different collaboration tools and use them on a daily basis, not only for productivity and collaboration, but also for social connection and even celebration.
I believe that the key question we must ask as we navigate hybrid work is no longer simply how will we just adapt to hybrid work and what we are all calling our 'new normal.' But more importantly, how do we create a better normal? How do we use the lessons of our digital shift to make sure we're not reverting back to the way we worked in the past—because maybe we weren't always as productive—but instead transforming how we work moving forward? As we navigate hybrid work, the last year has taught us how to be more geographically inclusive, less visually biased, more creative about who can be a part of a discussion, how they can contribute and engage and and how they can share their input anytime, anywhere in a way that has opened our eyes to maximizing collective expertise and driving engagement in workplaces in ways that weren't happening before. I'll never forget: pre-pandemic, I was on a conference call. Three of us were remote. Three people were in the office. It wasn't until the 26 minutes into a 30-minute meeting that someone in the office said, does anyone on the phone have something to share? We had been excluded the entire time.
Now it's more of a norm that a team of 30, if they're on there actively using the chat, introverts are engaged in just as much as extroverts. There is a different level of engagement that is happening because of the forced innovation. And so now to properly answer your question: as we navigate hybrid work my key provocation is that we must use the lessons of our digital shift that made us better to create those better work practices moving forward.
For example, as we navigate hybrid meetings, I have four key tips. The first is when you're running hybrid configurations in meetings, have a remote host and have a live host of the meeting and have the remote host lead the first half of the agenda. So you're rotating to actually remove that remote bias that we have. We tend to listen more to those visually that we see with body cues.
The second is keep the use of the chat tool. Don't lose it. It was amazing to drive engagement, to avoid turn-taking. So whether it's just your remote attendees using the chat or those in the room, also using it to have a group brainstorming or a Mural whiteboard or a Zoom whiteboard, and then actually having a deep dive discussion about those ideas in the room and in a hybrid format.
The third tip is to have a camera in the room. So your remote attendees can actually see the body language in the room as well. And there are some innovations coming out around that. But what that really does is it also removes the bias that remote workers or those just not in headquarters, not in the room have always felt, that they can't read some of those cues in the room.
And then the fourth tip is: one of the biggest losses, if you're not in the physical room, is those sidebar chats, the coffee chats. So what happens before the meeting and what happens after? I recommend trying to enliven that with the power of breakouts, if you're using breakouts that are mixed remote and in person. I've seen teams that have computers in different parts of the room and then they'll break up. But what happens in an office is we tend to sit with, or group up with, people that look like us, that are at the same level, that we know already instead of breaking those silos. Actually having forced mixed remote and in person can drive more of that hybrid engagement. That again was much better than pre pandemic.
When you say there's a camera in the room, is that the webcam on the wall, 20 feet away from most of the speakers? Or are you thinking something else?
I've seen companies start to really innovate around this one, with a camera where you can see the boardroom, depending on what's available. There are also cameras that will actually turn towards the person based on where they're sitting and can read voice cues. Or sometimes it's three cameras—you'll want to have different cameras in the room. If they're on Zoom those cameras will cue in on them so that we can read a lot of that body language versus just one room with 15 people and then remote workers can't really see what's going on.
Just to step back, to what extent is our physical body language still a signal in these meetings or are people looking at other other cues? Are we post-physical body language at this point?
I'd argue that our digital body language in certain hybrid and digital-first workplaces is more important than our physical body language. In other workplaces, maybe financial services or certain traditional industries, I would not say that. So it's definitely a spectrum depending on how digitally fluent or digitally reliant the workplaces are. We still require the importance of physical body language cues to build trust and connection when we are in person. But after spending a year online on screens, our physical body language is changing in certain ways. We are more likely to be impatient if someone doesn't get to the point in the room. We've been reading emails for a year. We think in bullet points, we want people to speak in those bullet points, like a TV show host on a video screen.
Secondly, we are more likely to look down at our phones, to look down at other screens and not have direct eye contact. For some organizations, this can be completely normal and acceptable. For other organizations, like a sales team, if you miss the 'lean in' in a sales conversation, you can miss the win. Or you miss someone rolling their eyes. You can miss how to pivot that conversation to get to the right place.
The third thing that is important when it comes to physical body language is the fact that we'll have individuals in the room and on screens will just simply cause us to be less focused on the model of listening being focused eye contact and nodding and bobbing to one person or to a group across an office table. And it's much more of the TV show host, where you're bringing people in for different segments. People in the room for a segment, then people on the screen for a segment, then summarizing what they said and cutting someone off if you have to. Because that's actually thoughtful to make sure everyone can share, and going back to that person in the room. It's that shift to acting like the TV show host or that debate host in the room versus that office meeting host pre pandemic that comes itself with a different sense of understanding or comfort with body language being appropriate. With more of a shift in reactions versus hands put in a certain way, standing up straight and looking into the eye of someone else.
What's your advice for managers in terms of digital body language?
Digital body language is how we communicate now. So the first thing is aligning schedules. Everyone's schedules have changed with the work-life blurs, and there's also often implied schedules around how quickly to respond to an email, how quickly you need to respond to a Slack, whether you need to engage or not on a Sunday if your boss emails you something. Setting some clear norms around collaboration tools—Slack, email, texts, you name it, because there's usually four or five that teams are using—setting response time norms around them that align and optimize schedule goals for the synchronous time where people need to come together. That could be a 10am standup meeting, where it's 10am Pacific and 1pm Eastern and aligned for that synchronous time, and then allowing for asynchronous otherwise. Or an agreement that if you send a message on Slack in after hours in that time zone, don't expect a response until the next business day in their time zone.
The second is expecting challenges. Managers need to expect challenges and set expectations for how to handle ambiguity or odd situations. There may be companies that are endorsing flexible work. But if your direct manager is a face-time person, they may be much more likely to have remote worker bias. That can really come into play when it comes to performance reviews. Research shows that we're more likely to promote people that we see more often—that was true pre-pandemic. So we have to create structures as managers to fight that bias. That's simple things like having regular practices where you have office hours with your remote workers and then live interactions with your live workers. Creating that intentional interaction that's more of an equalizer.
The third thing that is important is experimenting and adapting. Managers have to truly remember that there's not a one-size-fits-all here. Whether it's being willing to not just assume we all have to be in the office for one thing, or we can be remote for another thing, we need to create some practices where it's agile in your learning. So be willing to try that Mural or Zoom whiteboard, versus even if you can come back to the office, just assuming that we have to come to the office to have a good brainstorming session. Have a practice where everyone rates the meetings at the end and shares what worked, what worked well, what could have gone better, and what should we adjust next time. So that there's that constant agile mode around engagement. It could be the hybrid ways that we engage. It could be the time of the day. It could be how we engage in the meeting.
The last thing for managers is creating those intimate moments that matter with your team and a reminder that has to be done for those in the office and those that are remote. So if you all come in on Wednesdays, for example, use that time really intentionally, saying we're going to do a happy hour every Wednesday, for those off-the-cuff conversations. Do career planning discussions during those days or give feedback on those days so that we can have some of those nuanced discussion in person. Whereas for those that are remote, maybe we have hybrid zoom lunches every Friday—so that's much more inclusive for everyone anywhere.
What is your advice for individual contributors?
If you're an individual contributor, be proactive about understanding the expectations of your leaders and the traditionally implicit signals in the culture that now need to be explicit. So your job as an individual contributor is to remember what was implicit in traditional body language and the in-office culture must be explicit in digital body language or what we'll call the hybrid culture. That could be simple things like using thoughtful questioning with your leaders to understand how to read the room, whether it's virtual or hybrid. Ask your leader what are your preferences for getting a sense of how my work is going when it's been completed? Do you want a quick Slack message? Do you prefer a roundup email at the end of the day? Just ask what those preferences are. If there's a nuanced issue, do you want a quick phone call or do you want me to wait until our weekly meeting. Know how to best communicate with your leader. The second thing related to an individual contributor is to be willing to have conversations around career promotions, and how to acknowledge with your leader what could be potential remote worker biases in career promotions and learning and development and what their feedback might be around fighting some of those traditional biases.
The third is along the lines of asking your leader, how can I express my career interests digitally effectively? Where are the right opportunities to do it? That could turn into listening in on Zoom calls with your leader that you normally wouldn't be part of or taking the time to listen to recordings if you can't be in the room. That way you're gaining professional experiences and being proactive.
What are the most common sources of generational incompatibility around communications?
A digital native is generally seeped in the conventions of digital body language. They grew up with it since when they were in middle school. A period at the end of a text means you're angry, for example. It doesn't mean good grammar. A phone call out of the blue is intrusive—you email someone before. Whereas a digital adapter may think that texting in all caps is okay because someone might not see it the wrong way. Whereas the native will think that they're shouting or something's really urgent. But when it comes to generational incompatibility, there is not one digital body language. There are different languages, and they show up based on age, gender, culture, and even by channel.
In my book, there's a true story of a leader named Brad, who had a team where one direct report had a Slack channel for that team. Another direct report had a different Slack channel. And when Brad looked at Allie's Slack channel for her team, it was beautiful, basically perfect punctuation bullet points—Brad felt at home because he understood exactly what was going on with the team, who was getting, what done. Then he looked at his other direct report, Dave's Slack channel with his team, and it was gifs, memes, emojis—and he was completely confused. He had no idea what was going on. At first he was very concerned, but what he realized over time was that the quality of the work output of both teams was the same. And if he was to force Dave's team to be more like Allie's, he would actually be killing their creativity and their authenticity. That story shows that some of that incompatibility comes from the fact that digital adapters really prefer in-person body language. They're body language first, whereas digital natives are digital body language first people.
It's that that disconnect that can cause a lot of potential conflict. But what we can do to overcome that is as leaders be comfortable being uncomfortable , asking for help creating norms around not just what people's personal preferences but collaboration structures that will best serve the task at hand as well. This idea that there are going to be differences and we have to acknowledge some of that bias on both ends is important and create cross-generational learning.
I'd like to ask you about a few specific digital practices. One of them is: should you ever deliver bad news by email or Slack?
When it comes to bad news, picking up the phone or setting up a video call is worth a thousand emails or Slacks. However, if the bad news is time sensitive or requires asynchronous work due to time zones or geographies, then choose conscious, careful writing to set up the bad news, to clarify why you're sharing it by email, and to ideally create an open way to set up a followup phone or video call.
How about exclamation points?
Well, remember exclamation points can mean three different things: urgency, excitement, or shouting. Think before you exclamation point and be conscious of the trust and power dynamics and use them in ways to build trust in connection, but be conscious of potential misunderstanding when there's a high power and trust gap.
How about multiple exclamation points?
Use multiple exclamation points to show excitement when there's high trust. But try to avoid them in situations where there's low trust or a potential risk of misunderstandings. Secondly, remember that multiple exclamation points can be read differently by gender. When a man uses them, they're more likely to be interpreted as urgency. When a women uses them, they're more likely to be interpreted as excitement, similar to up talking or voice pitch bias in traditional body language.
How about how quickly you need to respond to a message?
Response times depend on the channel you're using. Slack maybe faster than email. Texting maybe faster than Slack. A phone call maybe slower than an email. Understanding that each channel has a different implied response time expectation is a good way of using digital body language appropriately. So that you're not a serial texter for low-priority issues. And you're not Slacking when you really are delivering bad news and have to have a deep-dive video call.
Particularly as we're heading back to hybrid working, are there any particular digital practices that are important for inclusive teams and inclusive workplaces?
The first one is hold your horses, which means less haste equals more speed. To be an effective leader in our modern hybrid world, you don't want to be rewarding just the fastest person who responds to your email or the quickest person that jumps on a Zoom call. Prioritize thoughtfulness over hastiness. This could be things like taking that intention to send an agenda with simple questions you want your team to be ready to share on a video call 48 hours before so your introverts have time to digest thinking and prepare their ideas. They were already struggling with airtime in the office. Then in the meeting, having everyone share their thoughts in the chat and then calling on people with the most diverse or different perspectives to avoid group think and bias, which was already happening in the office, and avoiding turn-taking. And, last but not least, taking that time to summarize what you're hearing and even sending that quick email recap is like the new virtual handshake, which really slows things down, but actually creates alignment versus rushing off to the next conversation.
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