For years, office combat was waged in the open: man-to-man, woman-to-woman, woman-to-man. A boss’s crossed arms, raised hand, head nod, or arched back spoke to us in an unwritten language. Body mechanics that immediately relayed whether we were going to praised or buried.
But the rules of engagement are changing. More often, our main contact with peers and colleagues occurs through virtual communication channels — by email, telephone, chat, or text messages. The cause-and-effect of these changes has been a gradual realization among senior management that the footprints left behind in “electronic body language” are significantly deeper and more impressive than originally realized.
At its core, an office that relies on virtual communications poses an overall but false assumption — that we all share the same email standards of etiquette. But still waters run deep, and the currents that flow below today’s email-based communication have an undertow that can test important management assumptions and skills.
Routine “email body language” decisions we make every day — response time, length of e-mail, spelling and grammar, tone (whether perceived or intended), initial greeting, fonts, send time, participation on teleconference meetings — have significant (and often conflicting) effects in the office, especially on productivity.
Traditionally, work relationships developed in a meeting environment. Visual cues helped fill gaps between words and intended meaning. But in the virtual arena, communications often take on added importance, and subliminal messages and inferences about competence as well as clues about style preferences, gender, even nationality, convey differently from person to person. In they end, they often fall prey to significant cross-interpretation.
Understanding and appreciating the office’s attitudes around the use of technology is an important first step to deflect misunderstandings. For some managers, staff members who receive a significant number of emails or are frequently interrupted in meetings are unconsciously seen as important “go-to” colleagues.
In other situations, employees who are constantly available and quick to respond to emails are viewed as highly productive. In these office settings, high performance is inadvertently based on communication habits, not necessarily standard metrics. Yet few companies are explicitly aligning these habits with desired outcomes. A supervisor, for example, who asks to be “cc’d” on all emails potentially conveys conflicting messages to his staff relative to work flow and trust.
When used properly, electronic body language can motivate people to work effectively, instill creativity, and to inspire confidence. The key is adopting policies that are universally understood and which genuinely reflect the company culture. Often this means developing explicit rules of engagement for interactions and communications, understanding the unintended consequences of email or a meeting invite, and making sure that the right information gets to the right people at the right time.
By identifying what we find acceptable, rude, professional, and effective, good managers can improve team interaction and can manage the diverse standards applied inconsistently across individuals, functions, organizations, geographies, and cultures. Electronic body language will expose the unintended consequences of information overload and pose a visible and real deterrent to organizational fatigue.