For many people, 2020 was the first real experience of working from home. Not the occasional day here and there while you wait for the plumber to fix your heating or where you just can’t face the grind of your daily commute, but full-time, every day working from home. Suddenly and without any warning, we were plunged into a chaotic and confusing world for which we were completely unprepared. But as we slowly start returning to the office, the rules are set to change again and it’s hard to know what to expect. As we get ready for a whole new world of hybrid working and whatever the metaverse eventually throws at us, one thing is for certain: it’s going to be interesting and a little cyberpsychology can help us prepare for it.
Get creative with emojis 🧠🎨💬
For some people, emojis, gifs, and text speak are the curse of the Internet and proof that people are getting dumberer and forgetting how to write properly. In a world where cat memes and TikTok dances are hot topics of conversation, it’s easy to fall into this trap. But research suggests that there is actually a positive relationship between “text speak” and literacy, with one study even correlating text speak with higher levels of linguistic and cognitive skill.
Emojis, creative punctuation, unusual spellings, and animated gifs are a form of paralinguistic communication that add layers of additional meaning and fill in the blanks caused by online communication. Used in moderation they are helpful when communicating electronically. They can add a little humour in communications, neutralise unwanted formality, and even create a sense of group identity. The challenge is not to overdo it and to make sure the context is right; just ask Chevrolet.
Never trust first impressions online
The way we form relationships online is quite different to what happens in real life. Instead of gradually building up a holistic picture of a person over time, we get a limited and often carefully curated flow of information. Our brains ‑ because they’re really good at handling incomplete information ‑ start filling in the blanks for us. With fewer cues to work with, we sometimes amplify or exaggerate our opinions of people and create idealized perceptions of them. This is hyperpersonal communication and it means, among other things, that we our impressions of people may or may not be accurate. We also reach these conclusions much more quickly than in real life.
Where hyperpersonal communication gets really interesting is in a hybrid working environment. Imagine joining a team where, for the first few months, you work purely online and never meet anyone in the office. You’ll build up a perception of your teammates and may think you know who they are. But what happens when everyone finally meets in the office and their real-life personas don’t quite match their online personas, or rather your perception of them? It can be a pleasant surprise when you realise that the grumpy guy on your team is actually really cheerful, friendly, and funny. But it can also be a strange experience when you find that your online “best friend” is awkward and shy when you have coffee together. Ideally, we would all meet in the office as soon as possible after being introduced to minimise the chances of inaccurate perceptions developing but when that’s not possible, patience, humour, and empathy are essential to deal with the inevitable surprises that await.
You are not yourself online
The idea that people’s online personas don’t always reflect who they really are isn’t just due to hyperpersonal communication or misunderstandings. Sometimes it’s intentional. Much like companies who carefully create and manage their corporate brand, many people use impression management to try to present a picture of who they are or who they want people to believe they are.
In a professional context it can make us seem more professional, interesting, successful, or indicate membership of a particular group. Usually, it’s well-intentioned and people are unlikely to be deliberately dishonest. Impression management is a double-edged sword: it can cause you to get the wrong idea about others, and it is something you can use to shape how others perceive you.
Online disinhibition is one of the most powerful aspects of online communication and it’s a force for both good and evil. In cyberspace, the feeling of invisibility or anonymity, the impersonal nature of online communication, and the lack of typical social constraints can make us behave differently.
Trolling and bullying on social media are the most obvious consequences of toxic online disinhibition but there are positive consequences too: many people feel more able to express themselves more authentically online than they are in real life. This allows people to express feelings or share information online that they would be reluctant to do face-to-face for fear of rejection, ridicule, or criticism. Supporting an atmosphere of trust and respect can unlock the potential of team members, even the shy ones who might never normally speak up.
So how do we prepare for the world of hybrid work? It’s neither remote work nor regular work but combines the best and worst of each. Likewise, even if the metaverse just ends up being a weird mix of Fortnite and Microsoft Teams, it will still challenge us as communicators and digital citizens. To help cope with this scary new world, here are some psychological tips to help you make the most of it.
Cultivate your online persona and be mindful of how you might be perceived because of what you say and how you say it.
Adapt your communication style to the situation: experiment with camera-on and camera-off meetings, find out who prefers email and who prefers chat, replace some meetings with group chats, etc.
Remember that people are different online and may not behave the same way in real life.
Don’t jump to conclusions about colleagues. It takes time and patience to really get to know someone online.
Be patient, understanding and above all else, kind when getting to know colleagues. You don’t have to like everyone you meet, but you do have to be kind and respectful.