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Importance of non-verbal communication in remote working to be focus of research

14 September 2021

A Cardiff University project has won more than £600,000 to assess the effectiveness of online communication in the workplace.

The project, co-led by Mary Immaculate College in Ireland, brings together 16 partners from across the business, culture and education sectors to better understand the transition to online working accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Researchers will record and transcribe meetings and other online interactions, hold focus groups and conduct surveys to gain insights into potential barriers to effective communication. Unlike other studies which have focused only on spoken language, researchers will also analyse non-verbal communication such as gestures, gazes, and nods, to see what impact they have on the effectiveness of virtual meetings.

Dr Dawn Knight, Reader at Cardiff University’s School of English, Communication and Philosophy and co-lead Principal Investigator on the project, added: “Changes in our workplaces and work practices are among the many transformations COVID-19 has wrought on society over the last 18 months. Seemingly overnight we were displaced from our offices and usual meeting spaces, working instead remotely from our homes.

“And while there has no doubt been benefits to this new way of working for many people, we want to understand this transformation in greater detail. So, we’ll be focusing in on the ways people interact online from these displaced work settings.”

Researchers will analyse characteristics like gender, age, status and ethnicity and factors like turn taking to understand why certain interactions are successful and others are not.

They plan to use their findings to create awareness-raising tools and training materials co-designed with project partners to help overcome challenges and barriers in the future.

“It’s our hope that these resources, together with the knowledge and understanding developed by project partners, will support a step change in our ability to develop equality of access in online communication,” added Dr Knight.

An archive will also be created online to enable future research into verbal and non-verbal communication. By developing techniques to capture and analyse interactions, researchers hope to standardise ways of approaching questions about language in an accessible way for other researchers and non-technical experts in the Humanities.

The successful bid awarded by the UK-Ireland Collaboration in the Digital Humanities Research Grants, means researchers will be awarded £390,000 from the Arts and Humanities Research Council and a further €270,000 from the Irish Research Council to carry out the research over three years.

Dr Anne O’Keeffe, Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics at Mary Immaculate College and co-lead Principal Investigator on the project, added: “It is great to be one of the successful bids in this significant British-Irish Digital Humanities research funding call.

“We hope this project will lead to practical training materials for our partners in business, culture and education sectors because, post-Covid, the digital space will continue to be a workplace for meetings and events and it is critical that we better understand what successful communication means in this medium.”

Co-led by Cardiff University and Mary Immaculate College, the ‘Interactional Variation Online’ project includes: Auctioneera Estate Agent, Cambridge University Press, Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, Langford Communications Limited, Lime Tree Theatre, Petroleum Technology Company, Public Health Wales, Swansea University, The Funding Centre, UNESCO Cities of Literature (Nottingham/Dublin), University College Dublin, University of Nottingham, University of Aberdeen and University of Limerick.