Understanding digital body language

The National Coffee Association’s (NCA) annual convention kicked off on Tuesday (8 March), held virtually for the second year in a row. There were several opening-day keynote speakers, but the one who truly resonated with me, was Erica Dhawan, author of Digital Body Language. In her presentation, ‘Digital Body Language: Collaborate Faster and Further, Together’, Dhawan, imparted rules that foster connection, build trust, and drive innovation in today’s hybrid workplace environment.

Dhawan explained that it is no longer just a question of ‘how do we adapt to the new normal?’ so in our efforts to adapt, we need to reimagine collaboration. In a world where companies employ both ‘digital natives’ (Gen Z and millennials) and ‘digital adapters’ (Gen X and baby boomers), and have people working both from home and in the office, digital body language matters.

She gave an example of email correspondence between a boss and employee who had worked together for six years, yet the 15-minute email exchange resulted in five hours of stress because of the wording used in the emails (by both people). “Behind screens, we misunderstand quickly,” said Dhawan. “Things seem passive aggressive, like we are arguing when we’re not. Strong ties have gotten stronger, weak ties have gotten weaker,” she said, adding, “We need to go beyond a culture of connection overload.”

Dhawan explained that digital body language is not about video skills, it is about cues. What is your choice of communication medium? Is it texting, emailing, video calls? Word choice, the use of punctuation, the use of emojis, and the meeting times all matter. These days, a ‘single period isn’t just a period’ in a text. “‘Digital natives’ see a period at the end of a text as passive aggressive while ‘digital adapters’ see it as good grammar,” she said.

So, how do we adapt to different styles? Dhawan shared Five Key Principles of Digital Body Language:

  1. Brevity creates confusion. Never confuse a quick message with clear message to make sure teams are on the same page.
  2. Communicate your mind with your mindset. What was implicit with traditional body language must be explicit with digital. Change styles to assume good intent. For example, using all caps in a text or email can be inferred as angry/shouting, excitement or urgency, depending on who the recipient is (digital native vs digital adapter).
  3. Hold your horses. As leaders/managers you do not always want to reward the ‘first responders.’ Make sure to acknowledge those who take the time to send thoughtful response.
  4. Assume the best intent. Do not just give others the benefit of doubt, rather, give the benefit of grace to avoid misinterpretation. Think about other communication mediums — often a quick phone call can prevent confusion or misunderstanding.
  5. Find your voice. More than ever, in the hybrid workplace environment pay attention to introverts vs extroverts. Use chat tools. Recognise digital natives vs digital adapters (who, according to Dhawan, often ‘feel like immigrants to a new country’).

Dhawan also noted that great teamwork is not about using new technology, it is about getting the best out of the people, but “it is on us to have the right playbook. There is no silver bullet around expectations.”

To improve teamwork among colleagues, Dhawan offered Four Laws of High-Performance Collaboration:

  1. Value Visibly. Valuing others time and schedules. Watch the clock. Acknowledge individual differences. Practice radical recognition. How are you igniting team spirit to keep morale up? A quick positive email can make an employee’s day in today’s world.
  2. Communicate Carefully. Think before you type. Define urgent — do you need it in five minutes, five hours or five days?
  3. Collaborate Confidently. Inform the right people at the right time. Prioritise and stay on track. Improve meeting culture. Consistency matters.
  4. Trust totally. Give the benefit of doubt. Create hybrid water-cooler moments. Show vulnerabilities. Get practical.

Dhawan gave attendees a lot to think about in terms of communicating and collaborating with employees, employers and colleagues (perhaps even family and friends…) in today’s digital, hybrid workplace world. I know I will certainly pause to review before ‘firing off’ that next text or email, work-related or otherwise!

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