A Workish Guide to Nonverbal Communication

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Mastering the art of body language is crucial to succeeding at work, where an oddly-placed movement, gesture, or nod can inadvertently change the course of critical business negotiations. Even Peter Drucker, architect of cubicles and inventor of swipe cards, famously stated that the most important part of communication is hearing what isn’t said.

But without walls in today’s open concept floorplans, it can be tough to interpret the world of the unspoken. Until now.

With that in mind, the Workish team has conducted years (if not probably minutes) of research decoding workplace scenarios and their actual nonlinguistic, kinesthetic meanings.

The Headphones Move

Employees wearing headphones are the modern-day equivalent of staffers working with the door closed. But even as the Harvard Business Review claims headphones “drain innovation and erode employee loyalty,” nothing beats the last two minutes of Bon Jovi’s Blaze of Glory when racing through those urgent tweaks on a microsite for Diet Dr. Pepper.

We all know that if you see someone working with headphones, they don’t wanna talk. But we’ve recently learned that the fancier the headphones, the more important the task. If Ben’s double-checking expense reports with standard-issue earbuds, you can wave hello with a quick interruption. But if you find Donna ripping through contract approvals with a pair of Bose Quiet Comfort Noise-Cancellers, walk away. Slowly.

The Quick Snack Decoder

Even though Bruce never physically answers your emails, it doesn’t mean he’s not responding. When he grabs a cup of pineapple Yoplait from the break room fridge, it means he received your calendar invite to the “All-Hands Prep for Anaheim,” and is metaphorically clicking “maybe.” If he reaches for a carton of last night’s takeout, he’s a no-go. If skips the fridge entirely, no big deal…it just means he’s not hungry.

The Star Wars Action Figure Status Indicator

Nonverbal cues in the office environment extend to personal effects at operator workstations, and for IT technicians and programmers, action figures signify a codified system of atmospheric beacons to cue passersby. If you see R2-D2 prominently featured near a blank yellow pad, it’s a chill day with loads of extra time. Chewbacca riding shotgun near a second monitor means it’s kinda busy, but there’s time for a quick chat. But if you catch a vintage limited edition IG-88 guarding a server tray, and if you enjoy accessing Wi-Fi, leave now.

Now Printing

Nothing’s more personal and revealing than the outgoing queue at a shared printer station, aka the company’s Confidential Work Flow Confessional. If your CEO is picking-up an airline boarding pass at a nearby printer, a brief meeting is a no-go. If you see a boss turning pages face down on the tray, you’ll want to update your resume. Pro-tip: if you’re looking for brownie points during a surprise board visit, create a 1-pager labeled “ideas for new revenue” and drop it near the paper tray.

Honorable mention goes to the Slow-Mo Hang-Up, where a colleague quietly puts the phone back into the cradle with slow deliberation.

If you see this, don’t ask what’s up…

It’s a cryptic puzzle best left unsolved.