5-second summary
  • Nonverbal communication – comprising body language, facial expressions, gestures, and eye contact – plays a surprisingly significant role in other people’s perception of how we feel and what we mean.
  • A drastic increase in hybrid and remote collaboration has complicated the effect of nonverbal communication, and teams and individuals alike would benefit from re-examining the way they communicate nonverbally.

All the world is indeed a stage, including our digital and remote workplaces. Your nonverbal behaviors are on display at all times, whether all eyes are on you or you’re a passive participant in a hundred-person meeting. In the Zoom era, nonverbal communication takes on a new significance, and it behooves us to be more proactive about the subtle physical cues we’re sending out. 

Read on to learn how we communicate – or miscommunicate, as the case may be – through our body language, facial expressions, and other nonverbal signals, and how we might think about nonverbal communication skills in a modern work context.

What is nonverbal communication and why does it matter? 

The guide to workplace communication channels you didn’t know you needed

Academic research on the subject places varying importance on the role of nonverbal communication in our daily lives – one decades-old study claims that only 7% of our sentiments are conveyed in the words we speak. Whatever the proportional breakdown of spoken words versus nonverbal cues in our communication style, those nonverbal behaviors likely play a more significant role than most of us realize.

These subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) indicators – body language, facial expressions, gestures, eye contact – are always running in the background; they may support, reinforce, or contradict what our verbal communication conveys. And like any form of communication, it can easily be misunderstood and misinterpreted, especially when we’re relying so heavily on digital communication, which limits the scope of our interactions.

Erica Dhawan is the author of Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection, No Matter the Distance. Her 2021 book delves into our (lack of) digital communication skills, giving practical tips and tricks for how to conduct ourselves in video meetings, emails, online chats, emojis, and so on. “We grew up learning the basic rules of body language, but not learning about digital body language,” she says. “There was no rulebook, so we made a lot of mistakes. We’ve turned the casual to the careless.” 

Remote and hybrid collaboration are now a permanent fixture in our working lives – let’s consider four ways our physicality can sabotage our meaning, so we can be more intentional in our nonverbal interactions with others.

4 types of nonverbal communication

An FBI spymaster taught me how to read my coworkers

We can bucket the non-verbal signals that typically comprise our self-presentation – online or face-to-face – into four categories. A note here, though: these behaviors may not apply, or apply in the same way, to individuals who are neurodivergent or have certain disabilities. As always, seek first to understand, lead with empathy, and prioritize psychological safety on your team.

1. Body language, posture, and movement

Our bodies are capable of near-infinite configurations, all adding context to our current state of mind. The way we sit, stand, and walk (think: a defeated slouch, a satisfied saunter, that pep in someone’s step) helps set the tone for our interactions with other people, though its significance may be muted in the era of Zoom.

In a virtual meeting, lean forward without slouching or fidgeting to show others that you’re engaged. In a one-on-one exchange, scan your colleague for indicators like a clenched jaw or hunched shoulders – both telltale signs of stress – before asking for a favor or delivering bad news.

2. Facial expressions

Facial expressions are a language of their own; we learn to draw meaning from the look on people’s faces before we learn to walk. And, since 1963, we’ve been increasingly relying on that infamous yellow icon as a universal stand-in for those localized nonverbal signals: 🙂

In fact, facial expression emojis have become a legitimate tool in the digital workplace, where some nonverbal cues may have taken a backseat, explains Erica Dhawan. “In many ways, punctuation and the use of symbols in a digital world are the new means of signaling that emotion.” They help people convey a range of emotions that sometimes cannot be captured in words. They’re also fun and engaging, creating a workplace and social connection among teams, even if they’re dispersed and remote.

A debate for the ages

We’re not here to take a stance on the hotly contested issue of turning our cameras off in virtual meetings. Of course, in the context of nonverbal communication, cameras-off leaves all the heavy lifting to verbal communication. At the same time, there are many valid reasons, from a bad hair day to a mouthful of lunch, that off-camera is the wiser choice. Team norms should be decided democratically and empathetically – do what works for you and your team.

Whether you’re making your feelings known with an emoji or relying on the analog version – you know, your actual face – tread carefully. Know when to hold back and when to let loose, and be as intentional as possible with what your facial expressions betray.

3. Gestures

While body language and facial expressions serve primarily to indicate our emotional state, culture-specific hand gestures can convey a more specific message. Using one hand, you can tell someone to ✋ stop, 🤫 be quiet, ☝️ wait, 🤙 hang ten, 🖖 live long and prosper,🖕…well, you get the idea. These socially agreed-upon signals can be a useful stand-in for verbal communication when, say, you’re in a room full of people (digital or in-person) and want to give a quiet-but-clear indication of support or dissension.

But, depending on the cultural background of the people you’re talking to – and keeping in mind that our workplaces are becoming increasingly global by the minute – that “okay” sign 👌 or thumbs up 👍 could give a Brazilian or Iranian colleague (respectively) a seriously wrong impression.

4. Eye contact

Yes, your eyes are part of your face (see our second item on this list), but that subtle-yet-profound signal of locking eyes with another is a pillar of nonverbal communication all on its own. “Make eye contact” is a near-universal best practice for building social connections – romantic, platonic, and professional alike – and showing others that you’re listening and engaged.

Eye contact is challenging if not impossible to achieve, however, in video meetings where you would need to look into the camera instead of at the faces of the people you’re talking to – hard pass. So we have to rely on other ways to indicate that we’re listening and comprehending our co-workers, perhaps making other forms of nonverbal communication all the more important. Sit up straight, nod your head, look alert – and don’t do other work while you’re supposed to be paying attention. Everyone can tell.

You can also adjust your video chat settings to hide your self-view, so you’re not tempted to fix your hair or poke at a pimple when someone else is talking.

Nonverbal communication in the Zoom era

We’re writing the distributed-work rulebook as we go, and regardless of what social norms emerge on your team or The Digital Workplace at large, our nonverbal communication skills may be due for a refresh. We’re all used to reading subtle cues on other people’s bodies – but how might we adapt those impressions to account for digital workspaces and online meetings? With all the benefits and disadvantages of remote collaboration, what are the best ways to foster genuine connections and come to mutual understandings? 

Nonverbal communication, for one, is raising its hand.

Nonverbal communication in the age of the digital workplace