For many, social interaction during the pandemic has been limited to video calls or other digital communications, making it difficult to read a room.
While some employees have begun to go back into the office, a recent study from UpWork, a freelancing platform, estimates that 1 in 4 Americans will be working remotely through 2021. The study estimated that by 2025, more than 36 million Americans might be working remotely permanently.
Whether you're on a conference call or doing a virtual happy hour, NBC News investigative and consumer correspondent Vicky Nguyen has some tips on how to decode body language for your next video call, no matter how many screen freezes or audio glitches get in the way.
How to learn digital body language:
Erica Dhawan, the author of self-help book "Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection No Matter the Distance," sat down with Nguyen to talk about things people should keep in mind while collaborating online.
"It is more important than ever to make sure that we're conscious of the signals we're sending," Dhawan said. "Digital body language are the new cues and signals we send that make up the subtext of our messages in digital communication. Everything from our punctuation to our response times to our video backgrounds in a video call make up signals of trust, respect and even confidence in our modern world."
Just like traditional body language, digital body language is important — and it takes time and practice. Nguyen gathered a group of producers for a conversation over Zoom, then had Dhawan analyze their body language and behavior.
Dhawan noticed a "few nonverbal signals" like fidgeting hands and eyes glancing off camera, which can be signs that someone is unsure or caught off guard. Another frequent sign was crossed arms, which could signal "anger or defensiveness," though the crossed arms were usually accompanied by a smile, which "showcases a focus or that someone is listening." Other common signs, like quick blinking, can indicate stress, while a furrowed brow might indicate confusion.
Your camera placement also matters. Dhawan recommends making sure that you aren't sitting too close to the camera, and that the angle is placed so that "individuals are not looking up your nose or at your forehead."
Add in some nods and smiles while looking straight into the camera, and you'll come off like an engaged and effective communicator.
Stay focused by limiting distractions.
Another issue can be managing distractions to avoid appearing distracted. One producer admitted that he was preoccupied by emails, which came in even while he was looking at the camera.
Dhawan said that the best way to manage distractions is run the meeting like you would run an in-person one: Plan a focused agenda that can help people stay on track.
To avoid cross talk, Dhawan recommends using the chat feature to ask questions, or call on people randomly so that people stay focused on the meeting. You can also hide your self-view to stay even more focused on other participants in the meeting.
Don't forget about texts and emails.
Other forms of communication, like texts and emails, are also an important part of working from home. While people should put some thought into the way they communicate through these platforms, it's also important to avoid overanalyzing the messages you're receiving: Always assume positive intentions from the other person.
Dhawan compared reading messages and emails carefully to close listening, and said that it can be important to consider the medium you're using. Texting has a less formal feel than email, so people may act differently depending on how they're communicating.
If you ever are confused, Dhawan recommends cutting to the chase: Just pick up the phone and give the other person a call!