Effective Non-Verbal Communication in a Hybrid Work Environment

As vaccinations against COVID-19 approach herd immunity levels and Singapore prepares to treat COVID-19 as an endemic disease, a hybrid working arrangement appears to be a strong possibility. Recent surveys and research by notable companies such Ideo, Microsoft, and McKinsey have clearly shown that the new normal is that of hybrid or flexible working, where employees will work only some of the time on-premise, and the other virtually, whether that is from home or some other convenient location. This has profound impact on employees in aspects such as productivity, learning and communication. As employees, it is good that we start adapting and mastering the skills to do well in these areas.

As an AI apprentice who will graduate after 9 months and enter the industry during this period, one of the more urgent aspects to pay attention to will be communication. With our education having taught us how to communicate verbally so effectively, this article will thus focus oft forgotten aspect of communication –  non-verbal communication, both virtually and in-person.

Virtual Interactions – same same but different

The Mehrabian Theory of Communication states that only 7% of communication it through spoken words, with 38% communicated through one’s tone of voice, and 55% percent through one’s body language. In a virtual setting, with much of your body obscured, how does one still convey sincerity, earnestness and confidence? In very much the same way as one would do in a physical setting, but with some adjustments! Let’s start off with virtual interviews, before we go into how to communicate non-verbally in the office and at virtual meetings.

For virtual interviews, one should dress as one would in a physical interview – this means a properly ironed collared top for the men; ladies can do the same, or don a simple blouse in a neutral or pastel colour. For the men, if you have facial hair, do make sure that it is neat and trimmed, making sure you do not appear bohemian or homeless (yes I know you need the job!). For the ladies, the verdict is still out on makeup. One should decide based on what brings out the best in you.

Once you log on, remember to look into the laptop camera lens, not the screen. Looking into the lens translate into looking into your interviewer’s eyes, which we know will help with building rapport. However, don’t go all dreamy eyed on them! Observe the 50/70 rule – looking into the eyes/lens 50% of the time if you are speaking, and 70% of the time when you are listening. When listening, it is also good practice to nod, clarify and smile to reinforce the fact that you are paying attention.

A picture containing text, person, indoor

Description automatically generated

Joining your company – interacting with your colleagues both in the office and virtually

If you have succeeded in your interviews and have accepted an attractive offer, congratulations!  First impressions (and your subsequent ones too, especially as a new junior to mid level employee) count too. For the first week, a new joiner usually is required to be present physically (of course, if/when the pandemic restrictions are lowered) so one can be onboarded effectively. 

At the office

The rule of thumb for dressing at the office is to dress like how everyone else is dressed at your company. For the first day or two, it is ok to be a little more formal, so that you are not caught being too casual. For tech companies , or tech roles in other companies, the usual is business casual, with some even ok with tee shirts. Whichever level of dressing, go for clothes that fit, are clean and pressed. This projects confidence others have in you, and also frames how others view your work – detailed, complete and done with effort.

On days when you have a presentation, you can amp it up a little by incorporating small details in your dressing, like wearing thicker framed glasses or an interesting brooch. This keeps the audience’s attention on you and what you have to say. The key here though is being subtle.

If you are not a presenter but a meeting attendee, it is good to not arrive empty handed. Bringing along a notebook or your laptop to take down notes shows that you are focused and keen on the discussion ahead. Do not place your mobile phone on the table as well – this shows that incoming messages are more important than the meeting discussion. If you must (well, your pants are too tight or you did not carry a bag), then a good practice is to put it face down.

When you are moving around the office, smile or nod at those you meet along the way. This is courtesy and exudes openness to connect, an important quality of a new hire.

Working from home

For times when you are working from home, you should still pay attention to your dressing. While tee shirts are ok when meeting virtually with your colleagues, you should note that these should be of a solid colour and are not tattered, crumpled or stained. If clients or external parties are present, aim to dress like how you would at the office. And of course, pants are important.

It is also polite and respectful to have your cameras switched on during video calls. You can switch if off only if your company’s culture is one where everyone keeps it off, or when you need to save bandwidth due to the large (usually>50) number of attendees in the meeting.

😄 15 Working From Home Memes That'll Brighten Up Your Day | by Product  Dave 💡 | Product Coalition

Parting advice

Non-verbal communication is subtle and messages are often perceived subconsciously. As a HR professional, I have encountered interviewees who do not switch on their laptop cameras, as well as attended Zoom meetings with external parties who were in their well-worn SAF running tank tops. These first impressions are unfortunately also very lasting impressions! Do avoid such practices if you want to be seen as a credible professional.