March 11, 2021
Whether we’re always aware of it or not, body language plays a vital role in face-to-face discourse. In fact, over half of our effective communication comes via body language; that range of non-verbal cues that covers everything from facial expressions and gestures to posture and tone of voice. Meeting in person constantly draws on these signals, and we interpret them by instinct and via conscious analysis to guide the way we interact, frequently to help steer communication towards our goals. But nearly a year of lockdowns, remote working and general separation has challenged these norms, with video-based communication acting as a widespread, imperfect substitute.
In effect, non-verbal communication has been ‘digitally transformed’ by the pandemic, with people asked to adapt to the nuances required to use video-based technologies. And this is important – the communication channels might have changed, but the importance of body language hasn’t. How we conduct ourselves and the non-verbal information we share can affect how we are perceived and how effectively we can work with others.
Indeed, many people are struggling with video ‘fatigue’ – an understandable sense of burnout caused by the volume of video calls in recent months, without variation or the option to meet in person. But, as many organisations plan to make video meetings a permanent part of their working cultures, it’s important to make the most of these online meetings in the short or long term.
Being ‘in the room’ when you’re remote
With video calls becoming so routine both professionally and personally, it is understandable that many people are becoming disconnected from the behavioural and communication etiquette that’s so automatic in a face-to-face setting. But, there are a range of methods we can all use to ensure we a) feel comfortable in the online environment and b) can ensure body language remains an effective part of our total communication efforts.
It’s important to minimise body language cues that might send the wrong message, particularly if they might convey boredom, cynicism, anger or any level of disengagement – even if we’re making a conscious effort to present the right image. For example, crossed arms can suggest defensiveness or irritation, while joining a meeting relaxed on the sofa could be perceived as unprofessional – hence the attention many people give to their backgrounds, even what books are visible behind them.
It’s important to pay attention to factors such as maintaining a proper posture
So, to influence or optimise the way we are perceived from the moment a call starts, it’s important to pay attention to factors such as maintaining a proper posture, and when possible, use appropriate seating to help present a good visual impression as well as being more healthy.
With upper body posture and facial expressions on view throughout each call, demonstrating a neutral response to much of what occurs during meetings can be vital. For instance, learning back from the screen can indicate a lack of engagement with the proceedings. Similarly, facial winces, head shaking, or rolling our eyes will also convey powerful information to others about our feelings. These can be difficult to hide, given we are not physically in the same room as others, and particularly if the call requires looking at information and not the meeting participants. The challenge is, any of these cues can potentially fuel miscommunication and misunderstanding, even if that’s not the last thing in our conscious thoughts.
To counter this, remember to occasionally nod, smile, and lean forward and otherwise, adopt a neutral and impassive image to avoid any misunderstandings, especially in those moments where we aren’t actively participating.
The eyes have it
Eye contact plays a massive role in non-verbal communication and is difficult to replicate over a webcam. To bridge the divide, maintain a focus on your camera when speaking or presenting – not the images of the other participants. And when listening, guard against becoming distracted by your things such as your own thumbnail image, as this can offer a very clear indication of distraction. Instead, try to focus on the feed of the person who is speaking to offer a digital equivalent that you are maintaining eye contact and are interested in what they have to say.
Too much hand and arm waving can be distracting
Given the relative lack of space available to make gestures on screen, the general rule of thumb for video calls is – less is more. While subtle hand motions can help show enthusiasm or help people to focus on a particular point, too much hand and arm waving can be distracting. And while listening to others, it’s important to try and remain relatively still, particularly for those gestures that are usually instinctive, such as messing with your hair can indicate someone who is bored or unenthusiastic.
It can be very tempting to treat video calls as an opportunity to multi-task. In reality, it may be completely practical to successfully do more than one thing at once, because there are times when what’s being discussed simply isn’t relevant to everyone. The problem is, it can be obvious when a call participant is doing something else entirely, and it’s important to be self-aware enough to consider whether that’s an impression we want to give off. Adopting a disciplined approach with minimal distractions can help maintain focus on the meeting, our colleagues and managing the way we are perceived.
Approaching video calls with a plan that includes an honest assessment of our own approach and how we might come across is an opportunity for personal development. The reason is simple: for many of us, the digital transformation of body language will remain a feature of workplace culture from now on, even when office space begins to reopen. Developing these skills will not only allow meetings to work more effectively but also help support personal professionalism in the long term.