New Normal, New Rules for Collaboration 
By Erica Dhawan, Founder & CEO, Cotential, and C2HR CONference Keynote Speaker
Connect with Erica: LinkedIn | Twitter | Download her FREE Digital Body Language Toolkit

Not too long ago, I had a particularly awful meeting experience with a senior executive at a large corporation. We’ll call her Sarah. It took 5 emails, two follow-ups and one confirmation call with her assistant to narrow down a time that fit Sarah’s calendar. I arrived on time. 15 minutes late, Sarah walked into the room and said, “You picked the worst time for this meeting! I have a big interview I have to give later today.” I offered to reschedule, but instead, she asked her colleague to come in and do the meeting with me. The worst part? Sarah stayed in the room with us and vigorously prepped for the next meeting on her phone and laptop. I felt more disrespected by her sitting in the room on her phone than I would have if she had just excused herself. That feeling of being undervalued and disrespected stays with you. I wouldn’t recommend this executive to anyone in my own network anymore. Who knows how many good opportunities she has lost as a result of treating others haphazardly? 

With our permanent transition to digital communications, understanding the new principles of valuing others has never been more, well, valuable. A 2016 survey by OGO found that 82% of American workers don’t feel that they are adequately recognized for their contributions. Remember how it felt when someone looked you in the eye, gave you a firm handshake, and said with feeling, “Thank you so much”?  In the digital workplace, we must find ways to Value Visibly by being attentively aware of other people and clearly communicating, “I hear you” and “I understand you” with our digital body language. Here are three principles that can help us collaborate effectively in a digital workplace:  

Reading carefully is the new listening. 
Where once we talked and shared information across a table or telephone line, today our conversations happen in written form. Instead of listening to others share their ideas, we are reading them in an email or other digital medium. The problem, according to research done by linguist Naomi Baron, is that we comprehend less when reading on a screen than we do reading print. We devote less time to reading the passage onscreen, are more prone to multitasking, and skim and search instead of reading slowly and carefully. Baron wouldn’t be surprised by this recent email exchange I had with a client: 

“Do you want to speak Wednesday or Thursday?” I wrote. 

“Yes,” he responded.  

One of the reasons we read poorly online is that we’re usually moving at lightning speed. We rush quickly through messages, instead of taking the time to go carefully through them. Our need for speed leads to exchanges like the one above—the digital equivalent of talking over each other, which makes others feel unheard or unappreciated. Why are we in such a rush? Because full inboxes and demanding executive teams can feel overwhelming – like we have no choice but to go lightning fast to stay on track. In reality, we’re not as busy as we think we are. Speed anxiety is artificial and costs us both accuracy and respect.  

Even if you really are too busy to get back to someone immediately, you can still be respectful of others. You would show great respect by sending a quick note (for example, got it!)  to let them know you are on it or when you’ll be able to respond. The real skill here is to learn to read carefully and then prove you’ve really read it by addressing all relevant points and answering all the questions asked. If you can’t answer all the points in an email and you just answer the easiest question, let your colleague know you’ll get back to them with more answers when you can. That way they know you’re not ignoring the other items.  

Writing clearly is the new conversation.   
Writing well and consciously is another critical cue of respect. This is a wake up call for those who consider writing to be a soft skill. These days, writing is body language translated into words, punctuations, timing, pacing and tone.  

When writing, make sure you do the little things. Check your tone and think about how your message may be perceived, especially based on your rank. Often, misinterpreting most emails is merely a matter of a dropped word or poor punctuation. In short, never press send before thinking about how others might interpret the message. Take advantage of spell check and other proofreading programs. Proofreading is more of a habit than a skill: making it a point of pride to send clean copy will help people take what you write more seriously. 

A phone call is worth a thousand emails. 
A German client once told me “I was having a never-ending email back and forth with a French and an Indian colleague who were having a circular written dialogue, covering the same ground over and over without understanding each other. I got them both to hop on the phone with me, asked a few questions a few different ways, and we got to the bottom of the issue. Sometimes, I think we are all guessing what the other parties mean on an email chain when we actually have no idea.” 

A good phone conversation is becoming a lost art, but a good call can save a ton of time and generate goodwill in ways that an email never will. We can’t explain EVERYTHING digitally. The phone allows people’s emotions and opinions to be heard.  

When you get a vague or confusing message, don’t be afraid to ask to have a phone call or, if possible, video or in person meeting. Asking for a quick call in sensitive dialogues shows you are being thoughtful; taking a beat before responding to questions won’t make you look indecisive. It will show people that you are listening and taking them seriously.  The other person will probably be grateful you’re actually reading their emails carefully enough to ask. 

In the end, Value Visibly is just about making people feel appreciated in the workplace. It used to be birthday donuts at lunch, high-fives from your team or flowers sent by a happy client. These things made you feel good about your work, and they shouldn’t disappear because we now sit behind our screens. We just need to learn how to express these things with our digital body language.  

Erica Dhawan is the author of forthcoming book Digital Body Language (St Martins Press, 2021) and Get Big Things Done: The Power of Connectional Intelligence (2015). She’s also the keynote speaker for the 2020 Virtual C2HR CONference and CEO of Cotential, a global training firm that delivers 21st collaboration skills in a digital-first marketplace. Follow her on Linkedin and Twitter. 

For tips, you’re invited to download my FREE Digital Body Language toolkit.