When we work in offices, we consider all aspects of our physical presence each day: “am I wearing a professional outfit? What does my physical appearance and body language say about my commitment to my job?” But how do we adapt to this to working from home? Are you representing yourself properly on screen? The prevalence of digital communication in the workplace has made it increasingly important to hone your digital body language. Our four communication tips will help you solve key digital marketing challenges.
Let’s face it: digital communication can be exhausting. Take Jack, a mid-level manager, who just got an email from his boss. It bugs him — or is he overthinking things? The last sentence — “That’ll be fine.” — ends in a period. It seems to dominate the screen, a black bead, a micro-bomb, lethal, suggestive, and — Jack would swear — disapproving. Boss is pissed, or at least Jack thinks so. But is he really? Did Jack screw up? If so, how? Is he reading into things? If he’s not, how can he work for a boss who’s so oblivious about the implications of a period?
When punctuation and shorthand set us off into bouts of uncertainty, we can be sure we’re living in unmapped times. None of us needs a linguistics degree to know that the ways we communicate meaning today are more confusing than ever. Why? Well, our understanding of body language is almost exclusively informed by face-to-face interactions.
No traditional expert in body language could have predicted that today, the majority of our communications would be virtual. Contemporary communication relies more than ever on how we say something, rather than on what we say. That is, our digital body language. When the internet came along, everyone was given a dais and a microphone, but no one was told how to use them. We all just picked things up as we went along. And the mistakes we’ve made along the way have had real consequences in business.
A research study published by Quester called “The Digital Communication Crisis” explores the challenges that we all face in workplace digital communication. Through a survey of almost 2,000 office workers, the study found that over 70% experienced some form of unclear communication from their colleagues. This leads to employees wasting four hours per week on average on poor or confusing digital communications, which adds to an average annual amount of $188 billion wasted across the American economy. Yikes!
Here’s the bottom line: what is implicit in body language now has to be explicit in our digital body language.
Each of us as marketers may have different expectations and instincts about whether we should send a text versus an email, when to call someone, how long to wait before we write someone back, and how to write a digital thank you note or apology without seeming insincere. These seemingly small choices create impressions that can either enhance or wreck our closest relationships in the workplace (not to mention our personal lives.)
Most today’s boardrooms, workplaces, and classrooms minimize the conditions necessary to foster and augment clear communication, leading to widespread distrust, resentment, and frustration. There are more far-flung teams. There are fewer face-to-face interactions. There is virtually no body language to read. (Even today’s video meetings are scarce of eye contact or hand gestures.)
The question is: how can we stay connected when a screen divides us? The answer lies in understanding the cues and signals that we’re sending with our digital body language, and learning to tailor them to create clear, precise messages. What was implicit in traditional body language now has to be explicit with digital body language.
By embedding a real understanding of digital body language into your workplace, communication processes can provide both the structure and the tools that support a silo-breaking, trust-filled environment. This skill, in turn, will lead to enormous efficiencies and a new communication ideal, one where the language and punctuation we use across all mediums is careful, conscious, and considered, and we’re always mindful of how our recipients might respond.
The medium is the message. Not all communication channels are created equal! Knowing how and when to use each one is important. Each channel brings with it a set of underlying meanings and subtexts, and knowing how to navigate this array of hidden meanings is a telltale mark of digital savviness and ultimately, professionalism.
If you’re unsure, ask yourself: how important or urgent is your message? And to whom are you communicating? If so, what’s better: email, Slack, a phone call, or a text?
And remember: you’re not bound to one or two communication channels. Switching between channels is a good way to indicate a shift in urgency of a message, or even to denote the closeness of a relationship.
In a digital world, our screens filter out the non-verbal signals and cues that make up 60-80% of face-to-face communication, forcing us to adapt the emotional logic of computers. We’re rendered cue-less.
By way of compensation, our communication style relies on punctuation for impact. In an effort to infuse our texts with tone and to clarify our feelings, we might use exclamation points, capital letters or ellipses, or else hit the “like” or “love” buttons on messages we receive. However, instead of clarity, sometimes our reliance on punctuation and symbols can generate more confusion. It is best to say what you mean in a professional manner.
Face-to-face interactions require that both parties be in the same place at the same time. But today, most of us are scrambling to keep up with our digital inboxes. This often means that communication happens at a slower pace. Though most of the time a non-answer can mean nothing at all, it is still an annoyance when it happens. If this is an issue in your workplace, consider mandating a response time for emails. For example, it can be within the hour for any emails that are urgent or client-facing. This ensures team-wide accountability.
Sometimes, it is necessary to hit the reply all, cc, and bcc button on that email. But before you do, ask yourself who really needs to be included. Be careful how you use these features, particularly “reply all.” Be conscious of the level of power dynamics and trust with your recipients. (Plus, it is important to remain cognizant of privacy and cybersecurity concerns.)