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  • Writer's pictureKatie Hynes, PhD

Digital Body Language: It's More Than Smiling on Zoom Calls

You want your people to collaborate, share knowledge, and get value out of the digital learning experiences you create. From the folks facilitating and managing these social learning environments to those participating, everyone helps determine whether the space feels supportive and conducive to learning.

Putting structures in place to ensure this happens is necessary and doable…but it can feel overwhelming!

Where to start?

Well, as Ursula tell us...

Ursula from Disney's The Little Mermaid is shown. Above her reads "Don't underestimate the importance of body language."

Digital body language, that is.

After conducting the audience analysis (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) and looking for patterns in the data, you’ll come away with information about your learners’ digital lives at work, including how they use digital tools to interact with their colleagues.

The audience analysis can provide valuable insights into the group’s “digital body language,” a term from Erica Dhawan’s (2021) book, Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection, No Matter the Distance.

Like its IRL counterpart, digital body language involves the “cues and signals” conveyed when people interact in virtual spaces, says Dhawan—everything from emoji use to choice of medium, speed of response, and message length and frequency.

Digital body language provides a way to talk about the challenges and opportunities for remote and hybrid teams as they work and learn together online.

Challenges: 🤗 + 💻 = 😐⁉️

As we already know, people might not be aware of how they’re coming across while navigating virtual versus in-person workspaces, or they might come up against limitations with tech that seem unavoidable.

For example, as Dhawan explains, key ingredients for successful teamwork—like empathy—might not always translate:

“The loss of nonverbal body cues is among the most overlooked reasons why employees feel so disengaged from others. If used properly, and at scale, empathetic body language equals employee engagement. Disengagement happens not because people don’t want to be empathetic but because with today’s tools, they don’t know how.”

The good news? Digital body language skills can be developed, says Dhawan. It starts with recognizing that “what is implicit in body language now has to be explicit in our digital body language.” She offers lots of resources in her book and on her website aimed at helping teams sharpen these skills.

Here, we’re focusing specifically on how to apply her insights to promote supportive digital body language in social learning networks (SLNs).

Opportunities: 🏆 + 🤔 + 🤝 + 🤗 + 💻 = 😀 👍

Dhawan identifies four keys to effective digital body language: Value Visibly, Communicate Carefully, Collaborate Confidently, and Trust Totally.

These principles fit with what we know about designing thriving SLNs. Here are some quick examples:

  • “Value Visibly”: As Dhawan points out, colleagues can’t rely on high fives or other nonverbal cues to convey praise. So being intentional about weaving celebration into the SLN experience is essential, whether through fun badges, thoughtful messages, or some other form of virtual kudos (see “Recognition & Positive Reinforcement” in this post)

  • “Communicate Carefully”: Whether you’re writing an email in a nudge campaign to get everyone excited about the SLN, a welcome post in the community, a resource in the shared knowledge library, or some other piece of content for your learners, ensure the purpose and next steps you want them to take are clear by including a call to action (see “Targeted Action” in this post)

  • “Collaborate Confidently”: Putting thought into your choice of moderators, influencers, and change agents will ensure the SLN has a team of insiders in place who can help encourage positive participation among learners and reinforce guidelines for supportive communication in the community (see “Pitfall #3: Ignoring the need for Internal Influencers” and “Pitfall #5: Failing to prepare moderators” in this post, as well as this post dedicated to the essential roles of internal influencers and change champions)

  • “Trust Totally”: Dhawan says trust emerges from having the three pillars above in place. Allowing time for the practices of valuing, communicating thoughtfully, and collaborating to take root in the SLN will eventually result in a space where people are more likely to feel they can take risks, make mistakes, and know that everyone will still have their back (see “Pitfall #4: Forgetting the warm up period” in this post and the note about psychological safety in this one)

Build for Good Digital Body Language

If people feel ignored, unappreciated, lost, worried, or psychologically unsafe, they’re probably not going to feel drawn to participate in the learning community, and there will likely be silence.

But you can make good digital body language part of your SLN. How? By encouraging the positive behaviors you’re already seeing in your organization’s online workplace and naming whatever doesn’t fit the group’s values.

For example, you might

  • post celebratory GIFs when a team member succeeds

  • make a quick Loom to highlight preferred methods of communication (so people know when they should and shouldn’t “reply all,” whether messages outside of traditional work hours are ok, etc.)

  • create a dedicated Slack channel on a topic trending in your learning community, where people can collaborate, ask questions, and support each other.

Promoting good digital body language can not only cultivate a flourishing learning ecosystem but also help improve digital communication outside of the learning space (see “Social learning leads to social skill development” in this post). And using a SLN for something like onboarding can be a fantastic way to introduce new hires to your organization’s digital body language norms and expectations—they’ll be baked right into the learning experience.

From the structure of the SLN to the guidance provided to moderators and the expectations described in the community guidelines (see “Outline Expectations” in this post), there are many ways to communicate and promote the way your organization defines good digital body language.

Dhawan calls this a “Digital Elements of Style.” What would go in yours?


Contact us for a consultation.


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