Message Sent — How to work on your signaling.

May 12, 2022
9 min read
Photo by Lucas Santos on Unsplash
“The message sent is not always the message received.”
— Virginia Satir

You signal. They signal. I signal. We all signal. 

Everything communicates, how we speak, what we look like, and where we are. Those signals make up a story for others. They’re a raft of micro-expressions, verbal tics, and non-verbal cues that inform others about you.

In an office, we signaled all the time, and we did it unconsciously.

Your car is first in the parking lot, and last to leave. What are you signaling? Either you have no life, or you’re bucking for a promotion.

You are at your desk, engrossed in a spreadsheet. What are you signaling? That you are working hard and not interruptible.

You’re heading to the coffee machine. You’re signaling that you’re now interruptible.

On the way back, a colleague is at their desk, laughing and chatting with another. You walk past, and they look and smile at you. What are they signaling? That you are welcome into the conversation.

You’re not at your desk; your boss looks across to where you usually sit. You’re signaling that you may be in a meeting.

If it happens around lunchtime — you’re signaling you’re at lunch.

Your boss is in the conference room, meeting with other colleagues — a signal of a meeting you are not invited to.

The conference room has shades drawn, suits from different departments enter, looking serious. More suits with Mckinsey bags arrive. A signal that big changes are going on.

In the “before times”¹ of the office, we signaled. All. The. Time.

Leaders rely on those signals.

In the “ready now”/ “ready next” conversations that happen in HR’s hushed hallways, that collection of signals had as much weight as formal job performance.

Those signals made you stand out.

Or, they led to comments, “she needs to be more strategic.” Or “he lacks executive presence.” Or “they need more seasoning” — vague posturing that something doesn’t quite fit.

No signal from you can mean no opportunity.

The assumption is that if you are not in the office, you won’t get promoted.

Nick Bloom, a professor of economics at Stamford, backs this up. Admittedly, it’s pre-pandemic research². In his 2015 study of remote vs. in-office work, he found that people working from home were 13% more productive. But, according to Bloom, “promotion rates plummeted, with roughly half the promotion rate compared to those in the office.”

Intuitively, that makes sense.

The lack of face time syncs with Pymetrics data. Organizational psychologists dug in and found three traits that significantly affect hybrid work: Focus — your concentration style as you tackle work; Attention — your approach to new information and distractions; and Fairness — your perception of the equity of situations.

Of those traits, senior leaders differ in Focus and Fairness. 

Senior leaders like interruption and multitasking to their teams’ preference of focused work and single-tasking. More tellingly, Senior leaders are more critical than accepting when it comes to fairness. In short, they don’t trust. They want to see others doing their share of the work and have no natural inclination to trust that the work will get done.

Signaling can help you bridge the trust gap. And that shouldn’t be new news. 

Signaling is part of the game.

“Boss Keys” have been around since the days of the Apple II — keyboard shortcuts that let you quickly switch screens from solitaire to spreadsheet — for use when you hear an approaching observer. Casual Fridays (read about them in history books) caused panic among a legion of middle managers trying to mix the right sartorial level of “casual” with “promotable.” 

All of it because our hindbrains sensed signaling was important.

It’s a survival and advancement function. According to Iona Cristea, who studies remote work, and authored the paper, Get Noticed and Die Trying: Signals, Sacrifice, and the Production of Face Time in Distributed Work, these signals matter.

According to Cristea, you get positive outcomes when others observe you at work, “because it is a strong signal of commitment to the job, the team and the organization.”

Scary, if you work from home. 

But isn’t hybrid work a signal-free environment? 

Not remotely. 🤣

There are multiple ways to signal. We just have to be intentional about it.

Everything communicates. Your calendar.  Your zoom room. How you handle email and chat, the presentations you give, and how you use social media are all signaling and more important in the hybrid world. 

It’s time to timebox your calendar.

Think of your calendar as an always-on signaling device. 

Take control of it. A calendar stuffed full of meetings signals two things: a) you are busy, or b) you have lost control of your own time. An empty calendar signals you aren’t working on anything particularly important — even when you are.

Use your calendar to signal.

Signaling requires you (and your team) to develop two habits: Blocking time on your calendar, and encouraging people to look at others’ calendars. 

Get to grips with timeboxing.

First, acknowledge work will fill up available time and space, and understand it’s easier to manage time and space (on your calendar) than work.

Start with a few basics. If your company emphasizes work/life balance, then decide your working hours, and block time outside of work for life. “Enable working hours” on Google Calendar, or “work hours” in Outlook.

If you eat, put “lunch” in your schedule. Add in a break in the morning and afternoon — list it as “catch-up time” or “buffer”

You don’t want meetings to run into one another. In the old days of the office, you had the convenience of physical distance from one conference room to another. The walk down the corridor and up the stairs took time. That walk allowed you to reset, focus for the next meeting and hit the restroom on the way. Substitute the walk with “speedy meetings” on Google Calendar or “shorten appointments and meetings” in Outlook.

Changing this setting gives you five to ten minutes back, turning a sixty-minute meeting into a fifty-minute one.  

Now you’re ready to timebox.

The existential question for work: Are you there to do the work or to coordinate the work? Employees spend more of their time (58%) coordinating their work than working³. We need to increase “focus time” and reduce “meeting time.” 

Nir Eyal, the author of Indistractible, calls these two work types “reflective work” and “reactive work.” Reactive work is “being on call and reacting to others'” (your bosses) “needs via calls, texts, and emails.” Reflective work is the work that needs focused time. It’s the research, deep thinking, writing, and planning — the work.

You are the owner of your work, and your first responsibility is to set aside time to do it. The meeting requests, emails, and messages (coming from other people) will spread like wildfire through your calendar if you let it.

Take your time back. Timebox.

Show up in meetings.

The prevailing advice from psychologists and productivity gurus is that it’s a good idea to turn your camera off in a Zoom meeting⁴. It’s also a signal. Given that managers struggle with trust, it’s time to rethink how you show up in a meeting.

Don’t blame bandwidth. Switch the camera on.

According to a study by Vyopta, a company that monitors and analyzes virtual meetings, showing up counts. If you don’t show up on camera, your boss doesn’t think you have a long-term future with the company. Execs believe that people who frequently turn off their cameras probably aren't paying attention.⁵

How you show up is a signal.

It’s your choice how you show up in a meeting.  You had that same choice for how you dressed for office work. In this case, you choose whether to send a photo-avatar of yourself instead of a live feed of your smiling face. And people judge.

Room rater is a harsh twitter feed judging the bookcases and backsplashes of TV talent. What they say about talking heads, like this harsh review of Lady Gaga’s zoom game, your colleagues are thinking about you.

Communicate to build relationships.

Your language — and how you write — is a signal.

Where does your communication sit on the spectrum? Corporate and clinical with a dash of institutional? Or a little more human? Is it “office speak” — polished, sterile, and peppered with large words, or “weekend speak” — being authentic, communicating, and connecting? Hybrid work has erased the line.

Language is a technology, and how we use it matters. 

The words we string together make our other communication technologies — Salesforce, Snapchat, and SharePoint — work. We use language to present ideas, transmit information and connect. From Fax-die-hards to Emailers, Slackers, and Tik-Tockers; everyone uses and evolves language: 

So if you write sterile emails with big words, you’re doing it wrong!

The purpose of communication is not to pass work from one to-do list to another. Work on your writing. Use weekend speak, not sanitized corporate speak. Emojis and exclamation points are 👌🏽!!! 

Presentations up the ante.

Your presentation is your time to shine.

They’re hard enough when you’re all in the same room. They’re even harder when people are remote. Hardest of all when you have a mix of attendees live and via zoom. 

Here, you have to get your point across

It’s your chance to signal that you are “more strategic.” Or  you have “executive presence” in spades.  That you have enough “seasoning.”

Make sure the story is well-structured. Death by PowerPoint isn’t an option. You have to engage people in a format that isn’t easy to do so. Think about the best way to tell your story authentically, and speak to your audiences’ listening.

Work on your word-gems.

It’s not just showing up, it’s how you show up.

Many people have hidden gems in the way they speak and write — turns of phrase and word choice that light up a sentence. They illuminate meaning. They trigger the flashlight moment when your idea takes hold in someone else’s mind. They are the earworms we easily hear when others use them.

One snag — we’re usually completely unaware of our own!

Become a conscious magpie about these phrases. When you notice someone catching the ear with a great turn of phrase, note it. Can you use or repurpose for yourself? Do the same when you notice someone positively responding to your own words.

Dull and boring is worth studying too.

Role-models come in all shapes and sizes. Anti-role models — people who manifest behavior that makes you want to do the exact opposite — do too. Are there some that consistently mangle the message, or drain the most exciting initiatives of sparkle? Ask yourself how they do it. 

Is there something you can avoid?

Social Media signals to a broader audience.

We’re not talking TikTok, turning you into an Insta “influencer” or chatting with your grandma on Facebook.  We’re talking about LinkedIn. LinkedIn has evolved beyond a digital resume. Your profile, your posts, and your comments on LinkedIn signal how you show up for work, who you work with, and what you’re interested in. 

LinkedIn is bigger than you think.

In 2022, LinkedIn had 810 million members, nearly a third from the US, 85% of those members accessing the platform more than once per week. It is no surprise LinkedIn is responsible for 82% of social media B2B leads.

It’s also an ideal place for you to signal your expertise, and to learn.

Two reasons make LinkedIn the signaling platform of choice for you and your business. First, social fabric — the connections inside and outside of the organization. Second, selling — like it or not, all businesses sell stuff, and you are part of that equation.

It’s a place to build connections.

Jaime Teevan, Chief Scientist at Microsoft, said of remote work, “[it] caused a shift to asynchronous communication and made people’s collaboration networks more siloed.” — while close team connections strengthen, social connections across teams, and outside the company, shrink. Not good, when most get our work done with, or through other people. As a professional forum, LinkedIn is a way to share ideas, learn, and make new connections.

Think of it as an always on conference, without the hassle of the flights.

The pandemic has changed how we buy and sell, especially in B2B. According to Gartner, much of the modern buyer’s journey — from “we need to do something”, to “what exactly do we need this to do?” to “we need to get everyone on board” — is spent without speaking to the seller. In fact, only 17% of that time is spent meeting with potential suppliers. When there are multiple suppliers to speak to, that time dips to 5-6%. The majority of the purchase journey (27%) is spent researching online.

Lenwood Ross, CEO of Accelery, puts it like this, "LinkedIn is the growth engine for business. It's a new way to go back to an old thing, business built on relationships, and getting to know people."

Everything signals. Be intentional about it.

Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience. He is also a contributor to Forbes Business Council.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

¹ Love this expression, which I heard from and credit to Rob Biesenbach
² Bloom, Nicholas, et al. "Does working from home work? Evidence from a Chinese experiment." The Quarterly Journal of Economics 130.1 (2015): 165-218.
³ Deczynski, Rebecca. “Employees Spend More Time Coordinating Their Work Than Actually Working. The Remedy? Host Fewer Meetings.” Inc., 5 Apr. 2022.
⁴ Shockley, Kristen M., et al. "The fatiguing effects of camera use in virtual meetings: A within-person field experiment." Journal of Applied Psychology 106.8 (2021): 1137.
⁵ “Vyopta | Wakefield | Hybrid Work Survey Results.” Wakefield | Hybrid Work Survey Results.

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