Non Verbal Communication for Distributed Teams

Have you ever looked at your co-worker from the other side of the room and thought, wow, they’re having a rough day?

Without even realizing it, what your brain has done is taken a visual cue, interpreted it, and translated that into a thought based on your perception of what you just saw…well, more or less. The science behind visual cues and interpretations is deep but worth reading up on if you like to nerd 🤓 out on brain facts.

In an office scenario, picking up on non-verbal communication cues is a lot easier, but what happens once we’re in a remote environment? This is when intentional non-verbal communication becomes incredibly important, especially for distributed teams and the remote leaders managing them.

Understanding the best way to incorporate intentional visual non verbal communication into your day-to-day isn’t easy though, which is why we’ll outline some ways you can get started. We’ll also break down how to pick up on async non-verbal cues, and share a few Do’s and Dont’s of non-verbal communication. First, let’s cover a bit of background so you’re crystal clear on what this type of communication is, and why it’s so important.

What is Intentional Communication?

In its simplest terms, intentional communication is thoughtful communication that is sent to another person or a group of people in a very purposeful way. The two main forms of intentional communication are verbal (language-based), or non verbal (ie. tone of voice, facial expression, etc.). Although written and visual communication technically are in a category of their own, they are very much linked with the non-verbal, in an async working environment (more on this in a minute).

Importance of Intentional Non-verbal Communication in the Remote Space

The kicker – Non verbal communication is subjective in its interpretation, even more so, when we can’t see someone. So, how can we communicate intentionally using non-verbal means, when all we have to connect are words and emojis? Or, are non verbal communication images and clipart all we have? Not exactly.

Remote leaders need to tap into a different way to communicate, one that is asynchronous. This type of communication blends written, nonverbal, and visual communication together, and adapts it to the remote working environment. For a brush-up, here’s the overview for each.

Nonverbal – meaning an exchange of information face to face (whether that be in person or through synchronous calls, without spoken words).

Visual – includes things like facial expression, hand gestures, and posture.

Written – the communication of words in written form.

Communication is one of the biggest struggles of working remotely, for this reason, leaders need to hone in on their remote communication abilities. To succeed as a leader in the remote space, you don’t need to be a master in cues, but you do have to get pretty darn good at blending written, non-verbal, and visual communication together, to communicate effectively with your team.

Visual Nonverbal Communication

First and foremost, no matter what type of communication you plan to use within your team, it has to be well thought out and…yep, you guessed it, properly communicated. Team members need to know when they are expected to use synchronous vs asynchronous communication.

At the same time, remote managers should have a good understanding of how to properly use non-verbal communication in the remote space. This is particularly difficult when they can’t see their employees face-to-face.

Need some tips? Here are a few Do’s and Dont’s of non-verbal communication you’ll want to brush up on, followed by some tips on picking up on Async Non-verbal Cues👇

💃 Express Yourself Remotely – The Do’s & Dont’s of How to Better Communicate Non-verbally

“A picture is worth a thousand words” – Henrik Ibsen

I’m sure you’ve heard the adage before. Often, the most complex of ideas is more easily and accurately depicted by an image that perfectly conveys its essence, far greater than a verbal explanation could ever do.

Although it was Henrik Johan Ibsen, a Norwegian playwright that coined the original phrase, “A thousand words leave not the same deep impression as does a single deed.”, throughout the years, the adage has evolved. The way we communicate non-verbally has also evolved, for the better or worse, many are still not sure 🤔. We’ve gone from beautifully oil-painted motifs, perfectly portrayed pointillism, and theatrical performances to emojis and TikTok videos.

With that said, the tools and communication models we have today are likely here to stay, and whether we like it or not, we need to learn how to work with them. More importantly, we need to understand when and when not to use them; this leads us to the Do’s and Don’ts you should familiarize yourself with.

Do Prioritize Quality (not quantity) Communication

This is something successfully accomplished peeps and distributed asynchronous teams have become masters at.

“One of the critical differences between successful remote teams and unsuccessful remote teams is the way that they communicate, and it primarily focuses on asynchronous communication.”

Liam Martin, Co-founder of Time Doctor, Co-organizer at Running Remote Conference.

Teams that lean into asynchronous communication understand the importance of clear and intentional non-verbal communication. The quality of the communication and the way they transmit it are far more important. Not only that but because more thought goes into their written communication, more can be said without all the noise or distraction of constant interruptions throughout their day.

With effective non-verbal async communication, there is less room for misinterpretation, thus less time required for solving communication-related issues, which ultimately leads to improved productivity.

Furthermore, advanced digital tools and opportunities such as Google Meets, Airtable data, and more, it’s much eaiser to create an engaged and productive community. “

Don’t Schedule in More Zoom Calls

As previously mentioned, picking up on non-verbal cues is much easier when you can visually see someone. However, that doesn’t mean that when you’re managing a remote team, you should try replacing the office by scheduling more video calls with your team.

The effects of Zoom burnout, coupled with the oh-so-familiar feeling of sitting in a meeting about a meeting, only leads to exhaustion, disengaged employees, and lower productivity. The way to mitigate all of this is to be very intentional about the reasons behind why you are scheduling a video call. Most remote meetings can be run asynchronously, and in many cases, even more effectively than if done via synchronous video calls.

Add Meeting Gif

Do Get Better at Picking up on Async Non-verbal Cues

Non verbal communication cues are related to facial expression, body movement and posture, gestures, eye contact, and voice, among others. In the remote async environment, these cues become more difficult to detect, or some would say, don’t exist and that non verbal cues are exclusive to synchronous communication. I’d beg to differ and say that they just take on a different form.

Here’s how you can better understand these cues in the async space.

  • Facial expressions & gestures – asynchronous teams don’t normally connect synchronously. Instead of using facial expressions to communicate, they use emojis. If you use Slack or Microsoft teams as your communication channel, these tools have built-in options to add emojis to comments and conversations. Dial into these cues, and use them as indicators for how your team members are feeling as it relates to a specific conversation or discussion topic.

    Word of caution on using emoji gestures – In a remote environment, emoji gestures may not be the most appropriate, especially if your team is culturally distributed. A gesture that may mean one thing in one place, could very well have a different meaning elsewhere.

  • Body language – Without having synchronous calls, how can you pick up on body language cues? Some would say it’s pretty much impossible, but in the async remote world, there is a subtle indicator you can go by.

    Think about that employee that used to arrive at the office all energetic, greeting everyone on their way in, and spreading good vibes throughout the day. In the virtual space, this type of interaction doesn’t exist, but thankfully, we can lean on written and visual communication for a better understanding of how an employee carries themselves throughout the day. That same employee that cheerfully showed up every morning happy to the office likely greets their co-workers in the chat every morning too. If they do it every day, and one morning they don’t – there’s your cue.

    Pay attention to these subtle inconsistencies in online behavior, as they can indicate that something is wrong.

  • Eye contact – Unfortunately this is a non-verbal cue that doesn’t have a translation in the async space, which is why making time for a bi-weekly or weekly synchronous 1-1 call is still necessary.
  • Voice – Although with written async communication you can’t hear someone’s voice, (that is unless you’re using an async voice communication tool like Yac), you can still pick up on their tone. Pay attention to how your team members are communicating what they say. The tone in their written words may convey frustration, sadness, anger, happiness, and everything in between, but, the only way you’ll know, is if you take the time to consciously read their messages.

As it relates to the cues mentioned above, you must tune into the subtle changes in how your team communicates. One of the best ways to understand how your team is feeling and whether they’re encountering any blocks in their workday is by using a daily standup app.

Remote tools like this encourage your team to provide a quick update on what they worked on yesterday, what’s in the plan for today, and whether they have encountered any blocks. Apart from this, employees can add emojis and a status update so that others in the team have an insight into their day, without needing to stand over and watch them.

Don’t Use Emojis & Low Touch Visuals to Respond to Sensitive Matters

Employee

“Morning Joe, I know it’s a bit last minute, but I’m going to have to take the afternoon off; I’ve just had to put down my dog and I need the rest of the day to process”

Boss

“😢 👌 “

or worse yet…you may want to second guess sending a gif like this to your staff member.👇

 

Although the above visual responses may accurately describe the feeling of the boss, they’re probably not the most appropriate use of async non-verbal communication considering the situation.

Instead, a more compassionate written response will likely be more received on the other end. This goes for anytime an employee communicates asynchronously on a sensitive matter. If you’re tapped into the tone of their message and have an understanding of the subtleties of their mood changes, you’ll be more prepared to respond to them most appropriately. In some cases, a simple “No worries, take the day 🧘‍♀️ ” , or “👌, keep me posted”, may work, while in other cases, no emojis, and just clear written communication function best.

Communication in the Remote Environment

As much as many of the intentional non verbal communication cues can be translated to the remote space, not all of them can. For this reason, creating a communication strategy specific for the asynchronous environment and effectively implementing it with your remote team, is crucial.

Communication is everything, and as a remote leader if it’s not on your daily radar, it may be time to re-prioritize where you’re focusing your attention on, because in the end, the more you understand your team and how they communicate, the more effectively you can collaborate. The health and wellness of your organization as a whole are large in part due to your ability to pick up on the cues of your team and interpret them correctly.

About the author

Content creator, curious creature, and a multi passionate creative with a desire to connect and inspire. Through her written work, Tanya aims to transmit stories that connect and inspire those who come across them. Apart from her passion for writing, she is equally as immersed in her love for the culinary arts and events planning world, as they both beautifully blend, bringing together groups of people who may not have met otherwise.

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