Health care has seen more change in the past two years than it has in the past decade, including a shift to hybrid work environments that are here to stay. But 75% of face-to-face collaboration consists of nonverbal body language like gestures, tone and eye contact. These cues do not translate across emails or chat messages—the key collaboration tools of a hybrid work environment.
So, what lessons can organizations take away as they build a sustainable, collaborative work environment, no matter the distance between employees?
At the 2021 Annual Leadership Conference, Erica Dhawan, author and advisor on teamwork, collaboration and innovation, says the key to a collaborative environment lies in mastering digital body language. Despite being common, she says digital communications tools such as email, instant messaging and virtual meetings lead to challenges in the hybrid workplace:
- 70% of employees experience some form of poor digital communication monthly, wasting four hours a week on unclear or confusing digital communication.
- 75% of employees identify a lack of communication as a pain point, leading to poor collaboration.
- Millennials and Generation Z experience the most anxiety at work despite being digital natives. With 70% of empathy cues such as smiles, lean-ins and eye contact nonexistent in digital interactions, this creates anxiety.
The new body language
A collaborative, hybrid work environment requires new thinking about non-verbal cues. Digital body language is about using cues and signals in digital communications that clarify the subtext of your messages. Dhawan says these cues have replaced traditional body language. For example:
- Choice of communication medium. Choosing whether to email, video call or instant message gives cues to teams regarding the complexity, urgency or priority of the message.
- Word choice. First impressions are no longer about handshakes. It is the first email you write or the first meeting invite you send that has thoughtful objectives.
- Response time. Did you respond in two days or two weeks? If you want to make a good impression, try sending a recap of what was discussed within 30 minutes after a meeting.
- Video meetings. Do you have a clear agenda sent 48 hours in advance of the meeting? In the first five minutes, ask everyone to share answers to questions in the agenda in the chat tool or on a virtual whiteboard. Call on people during the meeting based on what they share. Dhawan says this encourages participation from introverts because they can digest ideas in advance, and allows for perspectives from junior colleagues.
- Use of punctuation. Periods at the end of a text message can seem passive aggressive to digital natives. Digital adapters think periods are simply good grammar.
- Meeting time. Did you start on time and end five minutes early?
- Emojis. Some feel they are friendly; some feel they are immature.
Consider varying communications needs
Dhawan says pressure to communicate quickly can lead us to take shortcuts and leave out messages, causing teams to scramble. Avoid creating a culture where everything needs to be responded to immediately. Set response time expectations in emails, and help teams prioritize thoughtfulness over hastiness.
This means considering the communications needs of introverts and extroverts. Introverts benefit from open lines of communication, clear agendas and downtime between meetings. Extroverts benefit from regular face-to-face and video meetings. There are generational differences in communications needs, too. For example, digital natives prefer informal mediums like text and chat messages; and non-natives prefer phone calls and in-person meetings.
The four laws of hybrid work
Dhawan says these values are crucial for hybrid, face-to-face and all remote settings.
- Value visibly. Value colleagues’ time, inboxes and schedules. This means not chronically canceling meetings, minding the clock during meetings and practicing team recognitions. How are you revitalizing team spirit when people can’t read your cues?
- Communicate carefully. Think before you type. Deliver messages with clarity. State at the top of the email what you need from the recipient and choose the right channel.
- Collaborate confidently. Prioritize thoughtfulness; avoid situations where teams are prioritizing what's at the top of their inbox vs. what really matters.
- Trust totally. Building trust requires assuming good intent and giving the benefit of the doubt. Create hybrid "water cooler" moments, like having colleagues share a win of the week at team meeting.