In workplaces increasingly reliant on digital communication, teams are left wondering how to interpret tone in an email, whether the person on the other end of the Zoom call is impatient or just fast-talking, and what on Earth those emoji mean. Erica Dhawan offers guidance in Digital Body Language (St. Martin’s, May), which PW called a “sharp, timely treatise” on navigating these pixelated cues.

When did you first get interested in nonverbal communication?

I grew up as a shy introverted girl in a family of Indian immigrants; I struggled with proficiency in English at school and Hindi at home. Struggling between the languages made it necessary to learn to decipher body languages, and I realized how important that was. Then I taught public speaking at Harvard, where I did graduate work. Over time I began teaching corporate leaders and teams, and I realized that there’s a new phenomenon causing so much misunderstanding in the workplace. Well before Covid, we were seeing these challenges in global offices, offices with distributed workforces, and even within the same office—team members emailing back and forth even though they sat close together. Just as I was an immigrant learning a new culture, now we’re all immigrants to digital body language.

Can you talk a bit about the four laws of digital body language you identify in your book?

The first law is “value others visibly.” Be sensitive to others’ time and needs, read communications with care and attention, respect others. The second is “communicate carefully.” We need to think before we type, state what we need, eliminate confusing ambiguity. The third is “collaborate competently.” Give your team the freedom to take conscious risks, give them the right amount of consistent communication so they can do their best work. Follow up on what you said you would do. The fourth rule, “trust totally,” is the sum of the first three. Everyone needs to feel psychologically safe and be able to show vulnerability.

How can people develop these skills?

Individuals need to understand the messages they’re sending, even if they’re unconscious. General rules of thumb: Never confuse a brief message with a clear message. Really review responses; don’t just reward the first person to respond. Understand how extroverts and introverts communicate, and create a variety of spaces for them to communicate. Earlier this year, I ran a study of 2,000 office workers on digital body language challenges. The average employee is wasting four hours a week on poor or confusing communications. That’s $889 billion a year in wasted salary in the U.S.

What can businesses do to help employees transition back to the office—or not?

Organizations need to design clear norms about places and spaces. Many organizations are now planning to allow employees to work from anywhere they prefer—full-time face-to-face, full-time at home, or anywhere in between. You need to create norms about how to be inclusive. Make sure you include remote attendees in the meeting. Ask them questions first. If you’re having a brainstorming, keep the virtual chat available, keep it up on the screen. Allow them to have the same level of participation. Research shows that we’re more likely to promote and give credit to people we see; we can’t be biased to who’s in the room.

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