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Digital Body Language: How to Build a Modern Workplace Culture that Thrives

Kristina Smith

Manager, Business Consulting, EPAM Continuum
Blog

During the COVID-19 pandemic, workplace culture changed dramatically. Video calls, instant messaging and email took center stage as many of us were forced to work from home. Abruptly, we had to consider when to turn our cameras on and off, how our tone might come across in emails to people that we normally saw face to face, and whether emojis might help us stay connected or seem unprofessional.

Two years on, we know remote work is here to stay for many of us, and that means effective digital body language is critical for a workplace culture to thrive. Company leaders and managers must intentionally facilitate successful remote communications by setting an example, talking openly about needs and expectations, and then adapting as change continues, because we know it will.

What is Digital Body Language?

We define digital body language broadly as all the signals that are exchanged digitally, whether that means in an online meeting, with or without video, or written communications delivered by text, email or instant message.

When you communicate with someone in person, there are certain cues you give that send unspoken messages about your intent or personality. In person, we use body language, facial expressions and tone of voice to express meaning beyond our words. But what happens when we take those away and must rely only on the text on a screen to read someone's intentions? Does an exclamation point mean you are yelling?! Or just excited!? Does it make you sound more friendly? Or too eager?

And how do we navigate online meetings? When should the camera be on? How can we stay connected through pixels? While digital body language is a new term for many of us, it describes behavior we’ve all been engaged in at work, whether we have realized it or not. 

There are many questions we face when attempting to communicate digitally. A common understanding of digital body language can help us answer them with increased confidence.

Why Digital Body Language Matters

Workplace culture is a delicate and complex machine that changes constantly. To ignore digital body language is to leave culture and morale to chance. Any workplace is a mix of people with different backgrounds and personalities. Without clear communications, which must include thoughtful digital body language, miscommunication and misunderstandings will inevitably happen. That can ultimately hurt productivity and a company’s bottom line.

Policies and practices that promote clear and positive digital body language, on the other hand, will support virtual work environments that are inclusive and connected. That means better morale, improved productivity and a healthy workplace culture.

Communicate About How to Communicate

It’s important to have a discussion to set the stage for different mediums. For example, using a chat (instant messaging) function is the virtual equivalent of popping by a colleague’s desk to ask a quick question. But for discussions that are more nuanced, staff should be encouraged to pick up a phone or, if visuals are needed, schedule a video call so they can share their screen.

Are your text messages and emails long and detailed or short and concise? Be aware that brevity can send mixed messages. When face to face, a simple “yes” can be expedient, but in the digital world a brief “yes” or “no” followed by a period might be interpreted as “don’t ask me again,” or “you should know this.” Managers are inundated by constant messages and notifications, and brevity is often the most efficient style of communication. For this reason, it’s critical that managers offer clarity regarding:

  • Why digital body language matters
  • How they prefer to communicate in various scenarios
  • Any standards they want to set

Managers are responsible for keeping people connected. It’s crucial to make sure that informal culture-building conversations still have a space. We don’t have traditional coffee breaks and the office water cooler is no longer seeing much activity, but it’s important that people feel connected because that’s the best way to encourage collaboration. To achieve this, consider creating virtual coffee break get-togethers or setting up regular one-on-one meetings with your team members.

Like anything else, managers must be prepared to evolve, to check in with staff and see what’s working, what isn’t and be ready to adapt.

Set Standards for Video Meetings

Given that virtual meetings are such an enormous part of how we work now, it’s important to think about any norms you want to set around these interactions. Is it important that certain meetings run with cameras on? Is there some flexibility for those who prefer cameras off? There are compelling arguments for both. Cameras “on” helps us connect and see real body language, but cameras “off” can be a relief for many who are juggling back-to-back meetings and the fatigue that comes with staring at a screen for hours on end.

One way to address this is to set the intention between always “on” and always “off,” but whatever is established, be sure to clearly communicate what’s expected to avoid the sort of misunderstandings that can hamper productivity. For example, when creating new meetings, clearly state in the invite title whether it is “video optional” or “video encouraged.” You can also designate “no camera” days of the week—maybe it’s every Friday, every Monday or both.

It’s also a good idea to establish a dress code for online meetings. Even for casual environments where hoodies are the norm, it’s best to convey exactly what’s expected to avoid anxiety among staff or create unexpected situations for clients. If casual wear is acceptable attire but appropriate for internal meetings only, make sure to say that explicitly.

Communicate & Iterate

It’s a whole new world of work. We’re all still finding our way from crisis management to new normal, and it can be confusing at times. Digital body language is baked into workplace culture, so clearly communicating about what’s expected is a must. Company leaders should be intentional and proactive about guiding their organizations through the ongoing changes. Clear communication is key, but so is agility; as norms continue to change, effective leaders must be ready to adapt.

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