If You Work in a Hybrid Environment, You Must Become Adept at Juggling Social Cues

Have you had a recent face-to-face interaction that felt a little awkward, even with people you know well? That seems to be a common occurrence for many of us. Our social skills have gotten rusty since Covid became the new international vocabulary word.

Today, more and more workplaces are adopting a hybrid approach to work. And for many workplaces, that hybrid approach is here to stay. 

A hybrid workplace requires you to become an expert at interpreting and broadcasting a much wider array of social cues to communicate effectively. Further, it requires you to know which social cues to use in what context. For most of us, this is a new skill. Mastering that skill is a lot like learning to juggle. We can manage it well when we're just dealing with one environment, but trying to juggle both at once? Well, it's a little awkward. Here are three steps you can take to make it a little easier: 

Step 1: Understand the cause, not just the symptoms. 

In March 2020, when many companies first adjusted to a remote workforce, communications experts wrote many articles about the lack of social cues, those context clues we naturally used to help us determine if we liked one another. We noticed someone's energy, their appearance, how they carried themselves, if they made eye contact, and how they spoke to us. We got a quick sense of the person and how it felt to be physically near them, and we could see if we were connecting easily or not.

When we shifted to a remote workforce, we were left with none of those clues. We saw nothing below the shoulders, so we couldn't read other people's body language. We couldn't tell if the person was uptight or nervous -- or even fully dressed. We also couldn't feel their energy, make eye contact, or see how they carried themselves. 

To compensate for the dearth of social cues and to create a new variation of that human connection, we learned to raise our energy so as not to come across as flat or disconnected, focus on the person speaking (and not stare at ourselves on the screen), sit closer so we appear life-size on the screen, and refrain from multitasking while in a meeting. We learned to connect with people more personally and ask questions about their family or where they live. We also learned to relinquish some control and give into the needs of technology and team members. It took some time, but we got used to it.

But getting accustomed to communicating and connecting through videoconferencing came at a cost. Our sensibilities have been dulled. 

Our in-person communication skills have been neglected for a long time, so they are not as natural or comfortable as they used to be. We're no longer used to picking up on subtle social cues, so we miss some of them entirely. To make matters worse, many of us have gotten used to broadcasting our social cues through a megaphone to make sure the person on the other side of the screen doesn't miss them. That combination makes for some awkward interactions.

Step 2: Bring the awkwardness into the light.

If you notice that your team isn't communicating as well as they once did, it's important to talk about it. We're all a little awkward right now. It's normal. Find out if your staff is feeling uncomfortable and if they could use some extra support or just a good laugh. It's never too late to have an open dialogue about how everyone is coping or brainstorm ways to make it a little easier. And that one conversation can go a long way in making everyone feel more connected and understanding of one another. Then, consider revisiting the "awkwardness" topic when new changes occur.

Step 3: Be patient.

Although we are creatures of habit, we are also very adaptable. We adjusted to the change in communication styles when we had to transition to a remote workforce, and we will do so again. As we get used to juggling how to communicate with people in-person and through videoconferences, we'll stop dropping the ball quite so often and soon find that we are adept at juggling two things at once. We might even feel ready to add another ball to the juggling act. All it takes is time, practice, and a bit of patience. Of course, a good sense of humor certainly doesn't hurt! So be patient with yourself and your team as you and they adapt and readapt. 

I think we've all had more than a few awkward social encounters lately. I, for one, am looking forward to a time when we have reconfigured our social skills and can deploy the right social cues for each social encounter. Until then, I'm going to be kind to myself and others and take notes. We'll be laughing about some of these awkward moments in no time.


©Copyright 2022 Debra Roberts, LCSW All rights reserved. No portion of this material may be reproduced without permission from the publisher.

A version of this article was initially published on Inc.com as: Interpreting Social Cues in a Hybrid World