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Erica Dhawan

Coca-Cola, Cisco advisor on How to effectively lead virtual teams

Erica Dhawan on how digital body language helps you show emotional intelligence

Erica Dhawan

OKAY! Ok. Ok??? Kkkkkk 😊

4 common text/email sign-offs.

Yet each signals a mood we now have to interpret.

Reading the tone of emails, chat tools or texts is a big pain point of leading virtual teams.

And what about these?

·       Late or no responses to emails.

·       Keeping people engaged in Zoom meetings.

·       People who won't turn on their camera.

·       Confusing communications.

These are common struggles of the virtual workforce, said delegates to our popular Time for Transformation masterclass with leading expert on digital teamwork Erica Dhawan.

An advisor to Nike, Cisco, Coca-Cola, Deloitte, and KPMG, Dhawan is author of Digital Body Language on what guidelines are recommended for effectively leading virtual teams.

A drain on productivity and engagement

In my interview with Erica this week I shared a story about two women I saw when out walking my dog.

One held the phone out to the other: "What do you think this is supposed to mean?" she asked her friend. 

I asked Erica whether this all-too-familiar conversation was more than just an annoyance.

Was it a drain on productivity and engagement?  

Erica ran a study with Questa showing employees were wasting up to 4 hours a week on poor, confusing or unclear digital communication.

"How do we connect when 70% to 80% of our communications are virtual?" she asked.

"One of the things I realised is that body language hasn't disappeared, it has transformed. We infuse body language, whether we know it or not."

5 key principles of digital body language:

Digital body language is a new tool for those who want to be good leaders.

Here are some of her key tips for those with dispersed teams:

1.   Brevity creates confusion. Leaders must not confuse brief with clear (Note the difference in OKAY! and Ok.) Write and speak with clarity. 

2.   Communicate your mindset. Make sure you are clear on how you feel about the topic and what is being asked.

3.   Hold your horses. Prioritise thoughtfulness over speed of response time. In emails, try using a code in subject lines (ie. 2D = two days 4H = four hours NNTR = no need to respond)

4.   Assume the best intent. Give people the benefit of the doubt if unclear about tone. Switch medium, try a video or phone call. 

5.   Find your voice. Ask for participation from cross cultural team members and introverts. Use the chat function to help with context and to help them find their voice.

Digital Natives vs Digital Adapters

In geriatric millennial Erica's world, I'm firmly in the Digital Adapter camp.

I punctuate all communication (even texts) and I take time responding to emails.

But do style differences matter in effective virtual communication? Erica says it does.

In our interview, Erica explained Adapters are "immigrants to the digital world."

We're essentially talking a different language to the native.

It's something to consider when leading a virtual team; age could be skewing our communication effectiveness. 

·       Digital natives: Won’t listen to voicemail, like more frequent and shorter messages, prefer informal mediums like text and IM, and like prompt responses. They don't like phone calls out of the blue.

·       Digital adapters: May prefer phone and in-person meetings, are inconsistent with each channel (ie. use text like email), and like to send higher quality, less frequent messages.

Erica's quick rules for Zoom meetings

Every organisation has different cultural norms. Still, a few rules can help clarify behaviour.

Erica suggests:

  • Choose video on or off beforehand. If you're the virtual meeting host, always set expectations before the meeting (perhaps in the calendar invite) about whether you want all participants on video (or off video). Tell participants to let you know beforehand if they cannot do that.
  • Choose engagement method. At the beginning of the meeting, set expectations. How would you like them to engage? Perhaps it's keeping microphones on mute and using the chat tool. This can help introverts.
  • Allow for Zoom fatigue. If there is reluctance to use video (Zoom fatigue), set specific times when video is required, ie. 10 minutes at the beginning.
  • Take notes. Have someone take notes during the meeting, and send out a quick email recap within 30 minutes. It's like a virtual handshake!

At work vs Not at work. The do's and don'ts

Hybrid work means it's almost impossible to knock off.

So, when is it okay to send a work request after hours?

Here's Erica:

"My general rule of thumb is to set some standards within your team depending on different channels, and create expectations around response times within each channel."

For example:

  1. Email may be 24 to 48 hours, it depends also on the industry.
  2. Instant Messaging (IM), or an instant messaging tool that's used internally within the organization, could be between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. However, if you send a message after 5:00 PM, it will be responded to by, say noon the next day.
  3. Texting: My general rule here is to only use texting when it's really urgent or within the hour, or it's something that can't be done through your computer. And the reason why is it's very easy to overuse texting, which can cause a lot more confusion. If you've ever dealt with a serial texter, you know what I mean? 

"This is where I'm a bit more like a digital adapter," says Erica. "I love phone calls and I hate text messages."

If someone is texting you on overload

Erica suggests quickly responding to over-enthusiastic texters with a, "Got it, I'll get back to you Monday." Or switch the channel and respond on email. Say, "Moving forward, let's touch base on email."

She says this can help you slow down and manage the different communication tools as well. 

Eastern vs western digital communication

Team performance relies on diversity these days.

But leading a virtual cross cultural team (perhaps across time zones) or speaking virtually to clients overseas may require more tweaks to communication.

Here are some broad tips for improving collaboration within diverse work groups:

·       Eastern – Use title and surname, include more context and background, ask for a response to confirm a work request, and greet before asking for something.

·       Western – Be direct and to the point, they expect that you’ve read text and email messages, no need for non-work related messages, and communications don’t require CC of a boss or manager. 

The trust/power matrix

Erica says her research found sending or receiving an email or a text comes pre-loaded with 2 questions:

  • Who has more or less power (in this exhange)?
  • How much do we trust each other?

When responding to emails or texts, first answering these questions will help guide you to an appropriate response.

When someone has more power than you, and you haven't developed high trust, be cautious:

  1. Ask for clarity
  2. Don't get emotionally hijacked. Don't assume the worst if a message is unclear.

Masculine vs Feminine digital body language

This isn't about screen sharing blokey or girly stuff.

Erica Dhawan says masculine and feminine digital body language does not mean it's gender-based - rather it's stylistic:

  • Masculine: Equally confident with face-to-face or digital relationship building, short, to the point, without niceties, and uses assertive language.
  • Feminine: Preference for face-to-face relationship building, thoughtful proof-read messages, intensive adverbs (“extremely”, “very”), emotive spelling and punctuation (“soooo”, “yes!!”). – these are being amplified.

The 4 Laws of Digital Body Language

Priority one in online communication is a good internet connection.

Priority two is to consider 4 laws of good behaviour:

1.     Value visibly - Value people’s time and contribution. Watch the clock in virtual meetings. Ask everyone for input.

2.     Communicate carefully – Reading messages carefully is the new listening, writing is the new empathy. Think before you type and be clear.

3.     Collaborate confidently – Inform the right people at the right time, be thoughtful. Create a set of norms that define expectations for each tool.

4.     Trust totally - Much as research professor Brené Brown says, assume others are doing the best they can and show vulnerabilities.

For more detail, download Erica Dhawan's Master your digital body language.


Erica Dharwan says three quarters of face-to-face collaboration is non-verbal. It's a trip hazard within teams who are virtual.

Studies reveal we are less inhibited online. Without the body cues to go by, we're also likely to think the other person is arguing or being passive aggressive.

Whether you use this as a first time manager’s guide to leading virtual teams or you’re experienced in the role, you probably can improve your digital body language.

Either way, you'll agree it's important we could all be leading virtual teams more effectively.

OKAY! Ok. Ok??? Kkkkkk 😊

Author note: This blog article was updated May 26 to include The Growth Faculty's interview with Erica Dhawan for the member business book club.

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