At a glance
By Beth Wallace
When work meetings are held in person, it is easy to gauge colleagues’ reactions, because body language and facial expressions complement what is being said. In the hybrid work environment, things are not as clear-cut.
Body language expert Dr Louise Mahler says many office workers do not know or understand the digital body language “rules” inherent to virtual meetings.
“They don’t understand the spatial psychology, or proxemics, in terms of the distance one needs to be from the screen,” she says.
“Or they sit statically, which ‘de-powers’ them. They may stop using gestures, or don’t think about their voice and become boring.
“The problem with the virtual world is that there’s no actual connection, so we have to work really hard to connect with people.”
Screen set-up for success
It is easy for participants to appear distracted – by a message, connection difficulties or seeing their own image on the screen. This can be interpreted as disengagement, lack of interest or disagreement, which may lead to feelings of isolation or self-doubt.
One factor that can alienate people from the outset is poor camera placement.
“A lot of people look down at their camera, because their screen is too low,” explains Evans.
“That is the equivalent of walking into a room and standing over somebody. They are going to feel intimidated, particularly if there’s a power imbalance, so having the camera at eye level is really important.”
Mahler adds, “You can look aggressive. You can look like you don’t care. You can look like you’re disconnected. Worst of all, you can lose the trust of the people you’re speaking to.”
Building greater self‑awareness is key to avoiding behaviours that may alienate colleagues, Mahler says.
“I use the technique, ‘Nod, blink and smile’ to make sure this doesn’t happen.”
Digital body language tips
Before starting a video meeting, Mahler encourages people to spend time positioning themselves appropriately. This means being in the centre of the screen, with only a small space above the head, the camera at eye level and the face well lit.
Placing the screen at least 45 centimetres away will alleviate any discomfort fellow attendees might feel about having their personal space invaded.
“If you can reach your arm out and touch your screen, that’s the right distance,” Mahler says.
Use voice and energy to emphasise certain points and create interest – and remember to use gestures, she adds.
“You shouldn’t touch your face or hair, but you’ve got a whole lot of screen where you can put your hands, and gesture to paint a picture for people. This gives you movement, excitement and clarity,” Mahler explains.
To Evans, posture also plays a critical role in projecting an engaged and professional image.
How to run a successful hybrid meeting
“Try to have a nice, straight posture,” Evans says. “Don’t lean too far into the computer, because you’ll look giant on the screen. Don’t lean back in your chair either, which could come across as disengaged.”
Aside from subtle gestures, Evans encourages people to remain relatively still, which “shows signs that we’re concentrating, that we’re present and that we’re engaging”.
Eye contact is important, but Evans says many people get this wrong by looking at their own image or the speaker on their screen, which does not correlate on the screens of other participants.
One trick Evans recommends is to place a sticky note or a photo close to the camera, as a reminder to look towards it. Alternatively, people can hide self-view or rearrange their own tile, so they are almost out of sight.
Lastly, remember to smile. “We tend to have that hard focused face, where we may even be frowning,” says Evans.
“The people who are speaking can interpret that as you’re not interested, or you don’t care – so we need to be very mindful of that.”