In a hybrid world, digital body language is critical for team communications, and a challenge we all face in the workplace.
How do we write a mature-sounding message to a superior? How do we send a reminder email without sounding passive-aggressive? How do we acknowledge the changes of the past year in our emails without sounding insincere? Over 70% of office workers surveyed in 2021 experienced some form of unclear communication from colleagues, causing each worker an average of 4 hours wasted per week on poor or confusing digital communications—adding up to an average annual $188 billion wasted across the American economy.
The cues and signals we send electronically are our digital body language—everything from punctuation to response times to video backgrounds are signals of trust, respect and confidence. We have all picked up different digital behaviors along the way, leaving room for mistakes and plenty of miscommunication in our mostly virtual communication.
Traditional respect is based on the physical signals we exchange in person that our brains have come to understand unconsciously, through hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary training. But with today’s digital tools, many of our interactions lack visible cues for making meaning, leaving us coming across as not knowing how to be empathetic, which leads to disengagement. A chief executive can say, “My office door is always open” and tell everyone he’s “accessible” and “approachable.” But what if he’s never actually in the office, and the only way to communicate with him is to jump into his daily queue of 200+ daily emails and messages?
A fantastic senior leader who could make anybody feel at ease in a room, show respect and understanding, and listen deeply and carefully in a face-to-face setting can be perceived as low empathy if their digital body language is abysmal. For instance, they may believe they are doing everyone a favor by keeping emails brief and succinct, while the recipients find the emails cold and ambiguous. Last-minute meeting cancellations with no explanation or glancing down repeatedly at a phone during a presentation can give the appearance they are absent. This kind of digital body language cancels out the very real clarity that comes when workplace colleagues (and humans in general) feel connected to one another. It is so important to make visible efforts to value others when we communicate digitally, and to consciously show respect and empathy toward people in our professional (and personal) lives. Over half of all employees report they don’t receive the respect they need or want from their leaders.
So, how can we show emotional intelligence in our hybrid world?
1. Reading carefully is the new listening
Whereas we once talked and shared information across a table or on the phone, our conversations today happen in written form, and instead of listening while others share their ideas in real time, we’re reading emails and instant messages. The problem is that we are moving at lightning speed, devoting less time to what's onscreen and skimming to the end as quickly as possible instead of reading slowly and carefully, therefore comprehending less than we do when reading print. This leads to exchanges marred by miscommunication and confusion—the digital equivalent of talking over each other. But are we really as busy as we think we are? A lot of our speed, and anxiety around speed, is artificial. It ends up costing us accuracy, clarity and respect.
Even if you really are too busy to get back to people immediately, there are ways to show you aren’t blowing them off—send back a quick note (“Got it!”) to let someone know you got their text or email and are on it. Give a ballpark estimate of when you’ll be able to respond at more length. The goal is to show that you’ve really read the message by addressing all their relevant points and answering any and all questions. If that’s not possible, let your colleague know you’ll get back to them with more answers when the time is right. That way they know you’re not disregarding them altogether.
2. Writing clearly is the new empathy
Writing well and above all, consciously, is a critical mark of respect. A quick idea shared over email asking about including something in a presentation could mean simply adding a couple bullets to a slide to the writer, while the reader could interpret it as spending 30 hours preparing 40 slides, which in turn makes the reader feel even more devalued when their 40 slides turn back into two bullet points for the final presentation. Be mindful of writing ‘think-alouds,’ and separate them from true marching orders. Check your tone and think about how your message may be perceived, especially based on your rank. Email misunderstandings are often the result of a dropped word or misleading punctuation—proofread your emails before sending them.
3. A phone call is worth a thousand emails
A good phone conversation is becoming an obsolete art—which is too bad, since a call can save lots of time while simultaneously generating goodwill. When you receive a vague or confusing text or email, don’t be afraid to request a phone conversation, video call or even an in-person meeting. If it’s a sensitive dialogue, a quick conversation shows you’re being thoughtful, listening, and taking your work seriously. We can also get caught up in asking too many questions in email or group chat. Phone, video or live meetings safeguard us from asking one tiny question after the next, instead requiring us to formulate the right questions. Asking open-ended questions rather than nuanced ones, such as “Tell me what success looks like for you,” or “Help me understand what the best next steps look like” prevents a slew of emails and ensure that everyone on the team is clear about the project goals and their individual roles.
Our understanding of empathy and how we convey it needs to be redefined for the contemporary workplace. In today’s world of hybrid working and digital communication, we’re all learning a new culture and language. Being a good leader or team colleague today means mastering a type of body language that didn’t exist 20 years ago—one that continues evolving at a rapid pace.
Read the full article on Duke Corporate Education.