We constantly communicate, even when we’re not talking. Communication can be categorized in many ways, but for our purpose, we’ll focus on verbal vs. non-verbal communication. Verbal communication is pretty straightforward: we say words—maybe words meaning nothing. Still, verbal communication remains :-)
Non-verbal communication, as the name implies, is the one that doesn’t use words coming from our mouths. There are two types of non-verbal communication: There is the psychological side of non-verbal communication, such as, for example, the postures we assume when in a conversation, and, on the other side, all that we communicate using gestures and gesticulating. And trust me, gesticulating can share a lot. I’m Italian, I know how to gesticulate.
We are very good at reading non-verbal cues. We can tell a fake smile from a real one or detect a slight drop in the shoulders to tell if someone isn’t interested. These might be harder to read in a video call where everyone is a small rectangle on the screen.
Let me go straight to the problem. Remote workers can only rely on words. We can only use verbal communication. Postures don’t go through during video calls, and the same happens for gesticulating. Usually, the problem is that the camera view angle is too narrow to make so that bodies and sometimes even hands are visible. And no, increasing the camera view angle doesn’t solve the problem. In fact, it can make it worse because people on the call will be perceived as distant as if they were sitting at an incredibly large table.
Gesticulating is a form of communication we can try to avoid. In the end, if we think about it, there are many cultures in which gesticulating is not a thing. And they have no issues in communicating. But it has its place. For example, try communicating without gesticulating when your companion doesn’t speak the same language as you do.
Posture, and all the communication made by facial expressions, is much harder to replace, though. And my gut feeling tells me we should not try.
Non-verbal communication can be conscious or unconscious. I can voluntarily smile or roll my eyes to express different feelings. For example, when sitting, especially men can try to occupy as much space as possible by sitting with their legs wide open to demonstrate or gain power. The latter is primarily unconscious and, in many cases, is a sign of weaknesses. Another example of unconscious non-verbal communication is sitting with the elbows on the knees or armchairs and the back not touching the seatback. It’s a sign of discomfort; our body tells the world that we don’t want to stay where we are.
Remote working is not working remotely
All of a sudden, the COVID-19 pandemic catapulted millions of workers to work from home. They became remote workers, but in many, if not most, cases moved from colocated work environments to remote work environments without changing a single bit about the way they were working. They were effectively working remotely and not embracing remote working. They were, and still are, having day-long meetings but now using video calls. They are still supervised by managers looking for ways to monitor their subordinates but now using keyloggers and tools to check if they are in front of their computers (true story from the trenches).
At the same time, people are more easily distracted because they have the entire internet at their fingertips. We’ve learned to recognize that faraway gaze in people’s eyes that shows they are looking at something else instead of the meeting at hand.
In essence, remote working requires a mind shift in everything we do and involves tweaking non-verbal communication as part of the shift.
Make it explicit
One option is to transform non-verbal communication into explicit communication. Let’s use an example to better explain what I mean by making it explicit. In a traditional non-remote environment, my posture during a meeting might be communicating discomfort and the desire to leave the meeting. In many cases, the meeting participants will perceive it, maybe unconsciously, leading to a different outcome.
No one will notice my posture on a video call. Even if it’s communicating discomfort, it’ll lead nowhere. Making it explicit means making our feelings, emotions, and, in this case, the sense of discomfort emerge verbally, for example, by calling a meeting nullification.
How can we help to make it explicit?
One way to make communication more explicit is to solicit feedback from meeting participants. Start with the quiet ones. During meetings with multiple people, the dynamic is always the same. The vocal ones tend to override everyone else, usually unconsciously, and the quiet ones end up saying little to nothing. If someone has been silent for most of the time, start with them. A simple question like “what do you think, Mauro?” can lead to an answer similar to “I’m not sure I understand what are we doing here, can you please clarify what we are trying to achieve and what we are discussing?”. Either I’ve been distracted for the entire meeting, or a meeting nullification is probably the best outcome.
It’s not always that easy. I’ve experienced environments where someone asked questions, like the one above, for the only purpose of glorifying themselves, the manager leading the meeting. No way anyone could have provided such an answer.
A lighter and fun way to make it explicit
Maybe things like meeting nullification are not an option yet. If the organization is gradually transitioning to remote-oriented processes and looking for lighter ways to “make it explicit,” printed signs are one option I’ve successfully used for the last four or five years. I have many signs. Each one representing a different concept or emotion, something usually expressed using non-verbal communication options. I have a “this is fine” meme, a thumb up/down emoji, a “bloody hell” sign printed using the Rocky Horror Picture Show font, a “hot potato coming” comic strip, etc. I printed all of them on A4/letter size paper sheets to easily hold them in front of the webcam during a video call. They are a form of non-verbal communication that works quite well during a video call. They are a way to “make it explicit,” and they are fun too.
Non-verbal communication is a crucial part of the way we communicate. Not using it makes communicating harder and less effective in many cases. At the same time, working remotely and the need for video calls instead of face-to-face same-room meetings hinder our ability to communicate effectively using all the tools we’ve been using for all our life. Making non-verbal communication more explicit is an option we should consider, and depending on the environment and its maturity, we have more than one option to “make it explicit.”