How Managers Can Read People When They Are Working From Home

Managers have to learn how to read nonverbal cues while working from home
Managers have to learn how to read nonverbal cues while working from home Image Credit: Jonathan Kos-Read

Now that so many of us are working from home for at least part of the week, we are spending more and more time connecting with other people via video conferences. Meeting with someone via a video conference is much different than meeting with them face-to-face. When we meet people face-to-face, there are a lot of nonverbal cues that we can pick up on in order to determine how they really feel about something. Working remotely, we don’t get the same information. What is a manager to do in order to be able to read the people that they are working with?

Reading People When They Are Working Remotely

So what does it take to read somebody when they are not in the room with you? Is it a sideways glance on a video chat? Perhaps an email that drifts off into ellipses? By the way, why did your boss even add you to this calendar invite anyway? What does all of this mean? Back in the day we were fluent in using our manager skills to pick up on the nonverbal cues of the physical office. When we saw slumped shoulders or a downcast look we knew that the boss was disappointed or a colleague stressed. It used to be that a cryptic email often only necessitated rotating our chairs 180 degrees to get clarification from the person who sent it.

Since we had all day to figure it out, we could glean little hints from the walk to refill our coffee cups or in the minutes spent mingling before meetings. Things have changed. Now most of our work interactions are boiled down to 15-minute peeks into each other’s lives on Teams calls, or a volley of emails with no additional context. Sadly, trying to read our team members’ body language through a screen has become another exhausting part of a manger’s workday. Right now we feel like we have one hand tied behind our back because nobody has any manager training on how to do this. The good news is that there are still plenty of ways to read nonverbal cues if you know where to look.

How To Read People From Far Away

Mangers need to start with people’s movements during video calls – a team member crossing her arms could signal she’s closed off to an idea or has some information you’re not considering. A quickening or slowing blink rate by another team member can signify stress. And you will want to pay attention to eyebrows. Eyebrows that are pointing down toward the middle of your nose indicate anger; eyebrows that are in a neutral position but curled up in the middle point to sadness. The approach isn’t foolproof. That team member with the crossed arms could just be feeling cold. Consider body language to be your tip that you need to probe deeper to find out what’s really going on with someone.

Back in the day, much of our analysis of others at work used to happen subconsciously, the result of years of our evolution. Now with working from home we either must ignore our previously useful assumptions or we’re left confused and mistaken. Managers need to realize that the gestures we’ve been raised on our whole lives, they’re continuing, but they don’t command the same meaning they once did. For example, take staring. Generally speaking, gazing directly into someone’s eyes for more than one to two seconds is interpreted as intimacy or a precursor to conflict. Traditionally when people do this, it triggers our fight-or-flight response. These days we lock eyes all day on Zoom. Thanks to the large monitors that everyone has our images on screen are generally bigger than typical personal space would afford in the office. This perceived closeness can make us uncomfortable, or convince us we’re held in higher regard by a meeting attendee than we actually are.

Managers need to understand that written communication can be just as fraught. Team members are tripped up by everything from the brevity of emails – nothing chills like a reply that’s just a single question mark – to the timing. When mangers are puzzled by an email that they have received, they should ask for clarity if they have a close relationship with the sender. If they don’t, then the simplest thing to do is to just assume good intent. We have to keep in mind that punctuation marks like ellipses are often wielded differently by differnet generations – older workers might mean nothing by them, while younger workers read them as sarcastic. Remember to not overreact: if someone sends you a confusing or slightly passive-aggressive email, assume good intent. If you believe that the communication doesn’t impact your ability to get work done, it might be fine to just let it go. However, if something happens three times, it’s time for a candid chat.

What All Of This Means For You

Our world has changed. Once upon a time, managers would go into the office and spend their day working side-by-side with the members of their team. However, in our post-pandemic world, the new norm is for more and more of our team members to be working from home. This has created a change in how everyone interacts. The challenge for manages is that we now have to be able to read our team members moods from far away. Just exactly how are we supposed to go about doing this?

When we were working with the members of our team in the office, we could observe them and know when something was wrong. Now our interactions are limited to Zoon / Teams meetings and we don’t have as much time to look for clues. What we need to do is to start to watch people’s movements during video calls. It’s not foolproof, but it can give us a clue when something is wrong. Things that used to mean one thing where we were face-to-face with people may now mean something different over video conferences. Written communication can also be taken the wrong way. We need to understand that everyone communicates differently. If we get confused by a written communication that we receive, we need to take the time to follow up.

Change has always been a constant part of our lives. The switch to more of our team members working from home has changed how we interact with them. We still have a responsibility to stay on top of how each of our team members is doing and if they start to run into problems, we need to be ready to step in and help them out. Before we can do that, we need to detect that something is wrong. Getting good at reading body language over video calls is an important skill for all of us to develop. Take the time to study your team members and decide just exactly what they are really trying to tell you…

– Dr. Jim Anderson Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World IT Management Skills™

Question For You: If you detect that a team member is not doing well, how can you help them remotely?

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