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How to master ‘digital body language’ to get more from virtual meetings

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The ability to shift communication online and hold video meetings has proved to be a lifeline for businesses over the past year. Nevertheless, teams quickly realised ‘getting together’ online just isn’t the same.

Holding productive and efficient meetings is a tough enough task in person, but videoconferencing could be further hampering our effectiveness – mainly because of how much we rely on body language to ‘read the room’ and gauge people’s mood and reactions. There are times online where it can feel like we are operating in a vacuum, with only ourselves as an audience.

Author and management expert Erica Dhawan says around 70 per cent of all communications among teams is now virtual and that we have shifted “the way we create connections” and how we work with colleagues or customers.

Remote meetings clearly aren’t a stopgap. They are likely to be adopted permanently into working life and perhaps become even more complex to manage as flexible work trends settle and meetings increasingly comprise a mix of in-person and remote attendees.

This means that project managers need to adapt and figure out how to work on their digital body language, so they can lead virtual meetings confidently and ensure meetings stay clear and constructive.

Understanding the digital disconnect

Enter Dhawan’s book, Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection, No Matter the Distance, which offers powerful practical advice on how to adapt our styles to build trust and connectedness.

Before anything else, we must first understand the digital disconnect taking place, the book explains. We have fallen into new methods of communication without being fully conscious that a big change has taken place and how this is affecting our ability to build relationships. Acknowledging this can be an important first step to changing our approach.

Nonverbal cues make up 60 to 80 per cent of face-to-face communication, says Dhawan, and these are drawn from smiles, pauses, yawns, posture, facial expressions, hand gestures, eye contact and more. She warns that the loss of these cues (hindering our ability to read people’s emotions or signals and respond to them appropriately) is among the most overlooked reasons why employees feel disengaged.

Project managers who continue to treat online meetings as if they were no different from in-person meetings risk deepening this sense of disunity, as well as eroding trust and collaboration. Most importantly, it can increase the likelihood of team members misunderstanding points of discussion or being unclear on goals or tasks, causing inefficiency.

The four laws of digital body language

What’s needed to foster a more productive, engaged environment is for project managers to create new norms and rituals. Dhawan’s book explains there are four laws of digital body language: showing care, respect for and appreciation of colleagues in a visible way; being as clear as possible in how you communicate to avoid misunderstandings; encouraging teams to collaborate in a confident and empowered manner; and creating trust (which is a culmination of the other laws) to build engagement. These are logical codes for leaders to abide by no matter what the setting, but for virtual meetings they are particularly crucial.

So, what habits can we form that flex our digital body language?

  • Respect and value all attendees, whether they are in the same room as you or attending remotely, by allowing them all to introduce themselves at the start of a meeting.
  • To build a sense of connection, take five minutes at the start of the meeting to have some social chatter or share successes and even challenges. Also require that cameras be turned on to restore some of the body language cues and prevent temptation to multi-task or get distracted.
  • Regularly use verbal cues during the meeting, such as saying “I’m listening”, to encourage participation and show you are actively listening.
  • Keep meetings brief. Virtual events can be draining and we have a shorter attention span for them so limit their length and let attendees know beforehand how long the meeting will be.
  • Implement a five-second rule that requires people to wait five seconds before speaking after being asked a question. It gives everyone time to process what is being asked and can avoid everyone rushing in to reply at the same time.
  • Don’t abuse the mute button by using it to get on with other work or make calls; set a rule that other attendees won’t do the same.
  • Appoint a moderator to take charge of staying on the agenda and monitoring the text chat. Rotating this role among different team members will help attendees feel more included.  
  • Finally, learn how to include and connect with different personalities. For example, it’s important to find ways to encourage introverts to contribute to meetings. Using the virtual chat tool to ask for opinions and thoughts from attendees will mean it’s not just the loudest voices that are heard. Also, don’t interrupt and ask others not to. You can use the hand-raising feature to indicate who has the floor to speak.

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