Non-Verbal Communication in a Remote World

I recently did a talk at DDD2020 on People Skills and one of the questions I recieved afterwards intrigued me enough to want do write about it.

How relevant do you feel non verbal communication is while we’re all work remotely?

At a very simple explanation high level I’d say absolutely essential because of the increased reliance on Email and IMs during the Covid-19 pandemic. The fact that this question was asked over Teams really hammered that point home.

While working remotely all communication except phone and video calls are non-verbal. Photo by Mitchel Durfee on

But what I thought made this question especially interesting was when I started thinking about the most effective communication mechanisms when working remotely. Doist have written some brilliant blog posts on working remotely and async communication which I highly recommend you read. This means our non-verbal skills have to be absolutely on point. Doist recommend overcommunicating, making timesales clear, and really thinking about your mechanism for communicating (as well as many many other great tips). You can’t just fire off a skype message when your colleague is on the other side of the world, at least not if you expect a response any time soon. Proper thought out communication and strategies for sharing and storing information and making decisions is key.

There’s also a lot to be considered in the non-verbal of verbal communication methods. It’s much easier to get distracted during a phone call when you’re sat at your computer with your email and web browser open. I mentioned in my talk how people pick up on signs of a higher cognative load, how many times have you been speaking with someone and you’re aware they’re tapping away on their keyboard. While we may see it as efficient multitasking I can assure you the person you’re speaking with considers you rude and distracted.

Where and how we use the camera is also a key factor. I use a built in webcam and a secondary monitor. This means that if I want to see what someone is sharing I drag them over to the larger monitor and read it there. This, means that even though I’m paying complete attention to what the person is telling me I have a distracted, uninterested look to them. It’s often worth ensuring that you’re looking at the camera, rather than the image when you’re speaking with someone. At the very least make sure you’re looking vaguely at them and not off into the distance somewhere. A piece of advice I was given recently was to think of a video call like an interview for the BBC. Consider what you’re wearing, consider your background, and look into the camera – not at the interviewer. It’s extreme, but it is all true!

Consider how you appear on a video call, being visible isn’t enough. You have to appear engaged for the non-verbal communication to be valuable. Photo by Ekaterina Bolovtsova on

Without non-verbal communication our remote work would be much much harder, we’d be forced to sit on phone calls all day and we’d have no flexibility in our calendars to do the important stuff like, you know, work. Unless our written communication is organised and clear we stand no chance in cutting down the number of meetings we’re in. However, we have to be extremely important when we are having verbal communications, webcams – although an amazing technology can help us send the wrong message. Consider how you’re being perceived by the other person, being visible isn’t enough. And remember, those 1:1s are just as important whether you’re on the phone or sat around a table, resist the tempation to check your email at the same time!

Scrum in a Remote Team

If you find yourself reading the Agile Manifesto (as for some reason I do from time to time) you may notice this:

The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.

I don’t think anyone would disagree with this. However in these days of satellite offices, home working, and outsourcing your team members are often scattered across cities, countries, and time zones you may not have the luxury of every team member sitting in the same room.

So what can you do?

There are a few tricks and tips I’ve found help you keep a high level of communication between team members.

  1. Ensure your daily standup times suit everyone. Make sure it doesn’t force people to start early or stay late, consider people’s lunch and prayer times. There’s no golden rule saying you must meet at 9am!
  2. Use tools like Trello to move post-it notes online.
  3. Keep a running channel open for informal chat (such as Skype or Slack) and switch important notifications onto email so people don’t miss important information.
  4. Work from home yourself, experience any pain points of your remote colleagues your are describing and aim to resolve them.
  5. Use video calling. We were a little reluctant to start this but after years of Skype the difference was noticeable, remote team members were more engaged and banter was at an all time high.

These are a few of the tips and tricks which have worked for us, what do you do to help your distributed team thrive?