I’m a bit worried about our return to in-person work. My concern goes beyond whether or not we should wear masks indoors or stagger days in the office to enhance in-person distancing.
No, my concern is more about regaining the subtler forms of human interaction that have been stunted over the past year of Zoom calls and Teams meetings. I’m thinking that law firm professionals may need a serious tutorial on our ability to read nonverbal cues and communicate effectively once we’re all together again.
Conference calls, emails, texts and even videos provide us with limited information about the other side of the conversation. It’s like listening to a radio show versus watching a play from the front row.
I’ve gotten to observe this impaired communication daily in my work as a recruiter for large law firms. Since the pandemic began, I have helped hundreds of qualified candidates navigate the virtual interview process. Many mention in our post-interview debrief that even in a close-up Zoom encounter they had a hard time reading the interviewer’s reaction to their answers. In our pandemic world, virtual communication can be confusing.
I can remember when email first entered business communications. It was common to misconstrue a message because we couldn’t hear the writer’s voice. Or, we would react too quickly to the words on the screen rather than the tone with which the message was conveyed. Communicating virtually has forced us to rely on limited clues when we try to decipher what our colleagues and clients are communicating.
Our lack of practicing in-person reading of facial expressions and body language will be a challenge as we return to the office. What can we do to prepare?
- Start listening actively and intently when you’re on a call by focusing on the speaker’s tone and the specific words emphasized; is the person expressing a clear demand and instruction, or just being inquisitive, or leaving a decision and action entirely in your hands?
- Help others better receive your message by smiling and even gesturing when you are communicating positive information. Even if others can’t see you, you will be able to convey enthusiasm better when your facial expressions echo your words
- Ask clarifying questions such as, “So what’s your overall feeling about the suggestions I presented?” If you are unclear about how your information was received, ask what they felt about it.
The good news is that even after nearly 16 months of mostly sheltered work habits, our instincts and ability to read others’ non-verbal cues will kick in again. Being aware that we have been communicating in a limited way will help us to tune in and hear and see what our colleagues, clients and supervisors are really trying to tell us once the cameras are turned off.
If you’d like to help your team get a head start on this transition and maximize collaboration when you return to the office, I’ve developed a new program called Best Practices for Working and Communicating With Team Members. This interactive training uses the MBTI and shared work values exercises to help teams collaborate across different styles and build a more supportive work environment.