The future of work depends on our “digital” body language
February 24th, 2023
When I call up Erica Dhawan, the author and business consultant, is surrounded by cardboard moving boxes. It was June 2022. She has just moved.
Among the items she unpacked first: A bookshelf, a houseplant, a ring light, a tripod, and a 4K video camera—standard gear for video conferencing. For Mrs. Dhawan, settling in after moving from the Upper East Side of Manhattan to Florida began by unboxing these modern workplace essentials. (Her discussion with Asana was sandwiched between virtual keynotes for an investment firm and a technology company.)
“I lived in New York for almost 15 years with my husband and my two kids,” she tells me over the phone on a recent weekday afternoon. “As a result of the transformation of remote work, we moved to St. Petersburg, Florida. This was a direct result of the massive wave of people being able to—for the first time ever—work anytime, anywhere, and still have a successful career in business. I never thought I could do this years ago.”
Mrs. Dhawan is the author of Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection, No Matter the Distance. This 2021 book packs practical tips for improving in an area where many of us are sorely lacking: Digital communication.
After reading her Wall Street Journal bestseller in the days ahead of our interview, I felt incredibly seen for my behavior—in ways good and bad. Mrs. Dhawan draws on her career as a consultant, peppering on anecdotes that can feel withering or warm.
In the last two years, she also authored the viral Medium article “Why the Hybrid Workforce of the Future Depends on the ‘Geriatric Millennial’,” and a New York Times opinion piece, “Ignoring a Text Message or Email Isn’t Always Rude. Sometimes It’s Necessary.” Both use humor and vulnerability to push back on clichés about digital communication.
The advice she gives in the book and in those articles feels very of the moment (Publishers Weekly notes that Mrs. Dhawan’s “high-energy advice comes right on time.”). But at the heart of her practical lessons about how many exclamation points to use or when an emoji is appropriate are childhood axioms like these: “Give other people the benefit of the doubt” and “casual isn’t the same as careless.”
So why are people not giving each other the benefit of the doubt or reading into emails anger that isn’t there? As our jobs increasingly become digital, our communication styles didn’t keep up.
“We relied on informal body language as a way to build shared understanding for so long.”
“We relied on informal body language as a way to build shared understanding for so long,” Mrs. Dhawan says when I ask why those old lessons are forgotten when it comes to digital behavior.
“We grew up learning the basic rules of body language but not learning about digital body language. There was no rulebook, so we made a lot of mistakes. We’ve turned the casual to the careless.”
“I started working on my book because I saw the need becoming more important. With the rise of tools like Asana, digital communication is really how work gets done now.”
Below is an interview with Mrs. Dhawan that has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Do you think constructive feedback should always be given over the phone to avoid misinterpretation?
Research shows that up to 50% of the time, tone can be misinterpreted in written digital communication. When I’m seeing someone face-to-face or hearing the tone of their voice, I can sense whether they’re on the verge of tears or excited. We lose many of those traditional cues when we shoot off that email.
I recommend picking up the phone or having a quick video or in-person meeting. And Give feedback based on the work, not the person.
Start with what’s working: Then say what’s not working in the work and why. Instead of calling it feedback, I call it “feed-forward,” which includes two things we need to do next time.
You talk about the three laws of digital body language: Value Visibly, Communicate Carefully, and Collaborate Confidently. Which of these three is most important for managers to adhere to?
Communicate carefully, hands down. Effective digital communication skills are the number one indicator of who will be recognized as a high performer, who will be encouraged, and who will be promoted in this time of recession.
People want someone who is maniacally clear.
People want someone who is maniacally clear so that people know what they need to do, how they need to do it, and then they can make it happen.
Do you think enough leaders are doing well to create a culture of psychological safety?
No, I don’t think they are doing well enough. There is a massive opportunity for all of us to improve how we build psychological safety. Traditional trust-building happened through body language cues—a walk down the hall, the water cooler moment. In a hybrid world, leaders must create regular watercooler moments, no matter the distance. Call them hybrid water cooler moments.
Creating hybrid watercooler moments is actually deepening our environment of trust and psychological safety.
Creating hybrid water cooler moments is actually deepening our environment of trust and psychological safety if we take the time to use this opportunity well.
What traditional body language should Millennials and Gen Z adopt from older generations?
Older professionals can teach younger professionals how to master their traditional body language because they remember a world where you had to read the client’s hesitation on their face during a physical meeting. They remember when you had to take a message on the phone. They remember knowing when eye contact signaled that they needed to take a different path in their interactions.
What digital body language should we adopt?
Know when to send a Slack, text, or email instead of picking up the phone—and understand the difference!
Also, even if you want to see everyone’s face on the video, introverts may think better in writing before speaking, so you’ll hear more from them via Slack and email than during the meeting.
Don’t assume they’re not engaged. Understand that they find their voice differently.
Or they may be individuals with an accent who are going to prefer a written form of communication, because of their deep accent, than speaking up in a meeting. Don’t assume that they’re not interested.
Get comfortable being uncomfortable.
Get comfortable being uncomfortable. This is your opportunity to be more inclusive using all these channels instead of just relying on in-person body language. Even in-person body language had intense proximity bias. We tended to listen more attentively to those who had a deeper voice, who were taller, or those who were the majority in the room, or who had the majority accent. And many of those biases are removed with digital communication—if we use it well.
Do you think company leaders can better train new employees during onboarding about turning off notifications for the various work apps we use?
Leaders are responsible for setting expectations around response time in each of the various work channels. They should even encourage their teams to have set times when they’re not expected to respond.
What does the future of work look like?
I think the future of work looks like leaders who have optimized how their team can get the most done in the most efficient way, anytime, anywhere.
The future of work looks like leaders who have optimized how their team can get the most done.
I think the future of work looks like getting the most out of people in the office and creating clarity around what tasks should be done virtually or remotely. Knowing the difference is key, so you’re not in the office, and your door is shut, and no one on your team can ask you a question because you’re on video calls all day. Use office time for brainstorming, feedback, onboarding new hires, and radically recognizing and creating water cooler moments.
You use the virtual time for things more productive: Communicate with your introverts in writing who don’t usually jump in during meetings. Or doing individual thought work to avoid groupthink.
In meetings, we should be just as inclusive of those in the room as those virtually. I recommend teams have live and remote hosts and have the remote host lead the first half of the meeting to remove proximity bias.
How prepared are leaders to execute that nuanced strategy you just laid out?
I think that we’re still in the Wild, Wild West. We’re just two years into this massive transformation. It feels like the first two years that Facebook came out when we were all sort poking each other.
It’s going to take asking ourselves what’s the risk of not mastering a culture of effective digital communication. Leaders need to take digital body language seriously.
Learn more about Erica Dhawan via her website, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter. She’s also created a Hybrid Work online course.
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