Animation by Fanny Luor
Animation by Fanny Luor

More Connected

Erica Dhawan: Using digital body language to build trust on your remote team

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Published on December 14, 2021

Animation by Fanny Luor

How emojis, memes, and terse DMs play out at work—in intentional and unintentional ways.

Photo of author Erica Dhawan
Erica Dhawan

If you’ve ever seen a punctuation mark turn a text chat into a tense standoff, you already know the impact of digital body language.

When you can’t talk face to face, you miss out on the frowns, smiles, and raised eyebrows that can offer important context behind words—stress, joy, even irony. Emojis and memes can lighten the tone, but they can’t convey the subtle emotional cues you sense in someone’s presence. 

So how do you humanize virtual communication without adding misunderstandings?

Video calls and chat apps have helped, but as pandemic isolation wears on, their limitations have been laid bare. Now we know how hard it can be to brainstorm and establish rapport virtually, especially as more people start new jobs without getting to meet their teammates in person. 

On the upside, distributed work has opened new doors of opportunity for those who live far from big cities and tech hubs. And new tools like Dropbox Capture combine the advantages of synchronous and asynchronous by letting you send personalized video messages instead of text.

On the downside, distance isn’t the only barrier. Generational and personality differences can widen communication gaps. When you add the anxiety of a global pandemic to the mix, it can feel like learning a new language in a culture that never existed before.  

Fortunately, Erica Dhawan—author of Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection, No Matter the Distance—has been studying ways to overcome cultural divides and language barriers for years. In fact, it’s been her passion since she was a child. Growing up in a family of Indian immigrants in Pittsburgh, she became fascinated with how people from different backgrounds create authentic connections. 

“It’s up to managers to create a cohesive team that creates spaces for different communication styles.”

In the years since, it’s become her life’s work—first as a research fellow at Harvard and MIT, and later as a world-renowned expert on teamwork in the 21st century. In her latest book, she provides a practical guide to communicating effectively in the era of digital work.

“Every few months, things seem to get faster, leaving us no choice but to adapt to the newest normal,” says Dhawan. “We grow more accepting of distractions and interruptions, become more indifferent to the needs and emotions of colleagues and workmates.”

This digital disconnect leads to misinterpretation and new waves of organizational dysfunction—and one of the most overlooked reasons is the loss of nonverbal body cues. With more physical distance, fewer face-to-face interactions, and virtually no body language, it’s harder than ever to read emotions. It’s not that people don't want to be empathetic—they just don't know how to be with today's tools. 

But with the proper use of digital body language—which includes not only your words, punctuation, emojis, and avatars, but also the channels you choose—you can learn to build trust with your teammates even when you’re working remotely.

Which principle of digital body language is the biggest challenge for remote teams?

The first principle of digital body language is one of the most critical: Never confuse a brief message with a clear message. Receiving an email from your boss that simply reads “We should talk,” could have multiple interpretations. One-word responses like “Fine,” “Sure,” or “O.K.” can also cause uncertainty. 

Sending multiple question marks (???) instead of asking your team an actual question doesn’t clarify the information to either party. The recipient could jump to negative conclusions. But in fact, a boss may just want to discuss a proposal they turned in last week. 

“Never confuse a brief message with a clear message.” 

If you’re a manager, here are three questions to ask yourself to create a culture of clarity instead of brevity with your teammates:

  • Am I clear enough about what I need? Always take a moment to provide the necessary background required for the recipient.
  • Did I include the right people in the email? Is it clear why this message is meaningful to this person or group of people? It’s easy to be so brief that others don’t understand why they need to respond.
  • Am I intentional about when and what I expect in response? Make sure you are giving your team an appropriate and precise time when you expect an email back. 

One of my favorite ways to avoid brevity creating confusion is to create clear acronyms for your team. For example, NNTR on emails means “No Need to Respond,” 4H in subject lines means I need this in 4 hours, and 2D means I need it in 2 days. Even if it takes you a few extra minutes, spend the time communicating with the intention of being ultra-clear.

Brevity can also cause anxiety when there may not even be a need to worry. While a brief email may be convenient for you, it can have a negative effect on the person receiving it. And it can cause your team to waste time interpreting your messages instead of focusing on the task at hand. When there is clarity in communication, this also improves productivity and accountability because there is less room for misinterpretation.

You’ve noted that most people fall into two categories: Digital Natives, the Gen Zers who grew up fluent in non-verbal virtual communication—and Digital Adapters, the Gen Xers and Boomers who are learning emojis, memes, and texting etiquette like a new language. What tips do you have for bridging the communication gap between those two groups?

Good leadership is about more than bending people to your standards or norms. It also involves a willingness to engage across the different digital body language styles present in your workplace. It’s actually no different from knowing three or four different languages or regional dialects.

When establishing policies to bridge the communication gap, ensure you gather feedback from digital natives and adapters. Then, focus on norms that best serve the task at hand. Set norms for the appropriate time to use each channel of communication, message length, complexity, and response time. Questions that should be answered include:

  • “How long is too long for an IM message?”
  • “Do we want to put a limit on the number of people to include in a group video call?” 
  • “What should meeting agendas look like?”
  • “When (if ever) is it appropriate to text someone?”
  • “What is the expected response time for emails?”

It’s also essential to have team champions who hold people accountable when practicing these norms and even have a polite correction method if they are not being met.

Last, despite all policies, get comfortable with being uncomfortable when it matters. For example, Brad, the SVP at a large gaming company and a digital adapter, has observed a stark difference in the two Slack channels run by his leaders, Allie and Dave. Dave, a digital native, has a Slack channel filled with emojis, GIFs, and memes, whereas Allie, who is a mid-forties digital adapter, has a more formal writing style, complete with bullet points.

“With Allie’s Slack channel,” Brad says, “I’m at home.” Nonetheless, he soon came around to the way Dave saw the world. “He is so authentic. If I were to force him to be ‘corporate,’ his team would be less excited and engaged.” He adds, “I’ve learned that the best thing for me to do is try to become conversant in this ‘dialect,’ even if it’s uncomfortable.”

“Gather feedback from digital natives and adapters. Then, focus on norms that best serve the task at hand.”

Building communication guidelines is a smart decision. However, pausing for a second before you decide to adjust how someone on your team is communicating and taking a moment to consider how that person’s style might end up benefiting your team is also just as important.

Virtual onboarding has proven to be one of the best opportunities for establishing norms and expectations around digital body language. What tips do you have for managers and coworkers who want to create camaraderie with new team members?

My first tip is to migrate from phony to authentic communication. If someone is new to your team, type them a welcome message on their first day. Let them genuinely know how happy you are that they are here and how excited you are to work with them. 

My second tip is to engage in digital watercooler moments. Research shows that when we transition to remote work, what we miss most are the social, relationship-building activities that take place spontaneously, like when we walk by someone’s desk and say hello, converge in the breakroom to discuss our latest Netflix binge, or ask a distracted colleague if he’s okay. These “watercooler interactions” are essential ingredients for building camaraderie, morale, and trust. They also keep us in the loop around what’s really going on in an organization. 

So, without an actual watercooler, what are you supposed to do? The answer: create the time just to hang out and check-in together. It doesn’t have to be a strictly planned social gathering; five to ten minutes at the beginning of a team meeting will do. Your team should feel comfortable acknowledging the obvious fact that they have lives outside work. 

One team member of an entirely remote team once told me, “Every morning we start with Zoom all-hands meetings—what did you do yesterday/what about today/do you have any blockers? We also do another at the end of the day—what worked? What didn’t? What did we try? It’s a great way to celebrate our successes, share challenges, and create boundaries.” 

My third tip is to record your previous team Zoom calls so new team members can watch recordings before joining their first meeting. This is a priceless way to speed up knowledge sharing, as well as help new team members learn the varying communication styles and norms of your virtual and hybrid meetings.

Do you have any specific tips for new employees trying to connect with their coworkers?

If you’re the new person on the team, do some due diligence. Take some time to see your teammates’ work. Then, when it’s time to reach out, you can lead with specific details to let them know you’re familiar with their role and how they contribute to the team while recognizing their efforts and hard work from the first interaction. Then, go forward from there. With every scrap of detail, you begin to develop trust. 

First, understand what drives your boss's pet peeves. Managing up is about knowing what completely irritates your boss. Does she cringe at grammar mistakes? Does it irrationally annoy him when people send overly long emails? A lack of agendas for video calls?

Second, ask your manager and teammates about their preferred digital communication style, based on the complexity and urgency of information. For example, does your boss prefer to receive long emails covering many topics or individual emails for individual topics? Does your team prefer to be kept in the loop on everything you're working on (e.g., with daily or weekly update emails), or are they more hands-off? What topics are best to discuss on a video call versus in an email? When is it acceptable to make a quick phone call to a colleague?

Third, reimagine what it means to "arrive early" and "stay late" at work. You won't earn bonus points for showing up early to the morning huddle on Zoom in a digital workplace. You'll just be in the waiting room instead of chatting with colleagues as you would in the office.

Instead, send an email (or Slack message) to your team outlining your plan of action for the day and ask if there's anything you can do to help senior team members by taking work off their plate. If there are client calls you can't attend, ask if they can be recorded so you can learn and take notes afterward. Towards the end of your workday, reply to that same message with an update on your projects. Make a point to ask if there's anything else you can help with before the morning.

Communication, specifically via digital mediums, is no longer a 'soft skill'—it is the new power skill that will define your success as a new hire.

Do certain personality types have an easier or harder time adapting to digital body language?

With less social interaction and more opportunities for autonomy, the chances are that introverts have enjoyed working remotely and asynchronously over the past year-plus. On the other hand, extroverts may have found themselves to be less productive and more irritable at home, struggling to recreate external stimuli they are used to having in the office to motivate them.

I don’t believe that one personality type—introverts, extroverts, or even ambiverts—uses digital body language better than another. However, I do believe that each personality prefers different digital mediums to express their digital body language.For example, many introverts have shared with me that they thrive using the chat tool in a video call, where they can avoid turn-taking and think in writing first before speaking. They also benefit from a thoughtful agenda before meetings to prepare their thoughts in advance. 

Extroverts need airtime and may express themselves more effectively in a quick video meeting. Extroverts also benefit from spontaneous moments of social connection during the day through hybrid team bonding events such as Zoom lunches and happy hours. 

“Communication, specifically via digital mediums, is no longer a ‘soft skill’— it is the new power skill that will define your success as a new hire.”

It’s up to managers to create a cohesive team that creates spaces for different communication styles so that everyone can communicate in their authentic voice in the digital workplace. Regardless of where team members fall on the extroversion-introversion spectrum, the overnight switch to virtual work over a year ago forced all of us to adjust to uncomfortable circumstances. I hope that the tips above will make us stronger and more inclusive of all personalities in the workplace.

Which digital communication tools do you rely on every day? 

I rely on video calls, Slack, email, and sometimes text messaging. I consciously choose the appropriate communication medium based on whom I’m connecting with and what I’m connecting about. For example, my college interns communicate best on Slack and enjoy emailed Amazon gift cards at the end of their tenures, while my executive team sticks to emails and appreciates personalized notes.

Video calls are beneficial for kicking off and calibrating projects and establishing what success looks like for initiatives, teams, and individuals. Instant messaging platforms and email are beneficial for day-to-day communications. I use text messaging with a receiver’s permission if anything urgent comes up.What’s missing from current remote collaboration tools that could enhance clarity in our digital body language?

I’d argue we need better playbooks for the ideal behaviors we should model when using remote collaboration tools. With many different platforms available, it’s easy to schedule meetings that should be emails, Slacks that should be phone calls, and confuse the period at the end of a text as passive aggressive. 

What’s the most surprising lesson you’ve learned about digital communication during the pandemic? 

Initially, I insisted on framing digital body language as a mere complement to traditional, everyday body language. I was wrong. Physical body language and digital body language are inseparable. Digital body language is reshaping physical body language, verbal communication, and even the way we think.

Online and off, at our jobs or home, our phones have altered how we make eye contact. We sometimes find ourselves thinking in terms of hashtags or bullet points. We can miss the lean-in in a sales conversation in a hybrid meeting. Our level of impatience has gone up. We expect others to get to the point fast. And nowhere is this transformation more apparent than in the workplace. 

It has taught me that more than ever, what was implicit in our traditional body language must be explicit in digital body language. Like immigrants in a foreign country, we are all immigrants to the digital workplace and must become fluent in digital body language together.

To learn more, visit EricaDhawan.com and follow her on Linkedin, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.