Physical cues, such as facial expressions and body language, play a subtle but key role for gauging and communicating emotions and intent in the workplace. But with hybrid and remote working becoming the norm, facial expressions and physical gestures are difficult to both read and convey, especially with the growing reliance on text-based communications.
Despite the reliance on text-based communications, the majority of office workers feel that digital messages amongst co-workers are often misunderstood or misinterpreted, according to a survey by communications platform Loom. As a workaround, anecdotal evidence points to the growing use of emojis in the virtual workplace as an alternative to physical cues.
Emojis can be a way to enrich text-based and virtual communications. They help clarify messages, as well as provide information about the type and strength of emotions being expressed. Emojis even have the potential to augment leadership skills in a hybrid or remote working environment. For example, my colleague and I recently wrote how team leaders can use emojis to better connect with their remote teams.At the same time, emojis can be an intergenerational and cultural minefield. Not everyone agrees on what they mean. Amongst 9400 respondents who responded about emoji usage to a recent survey undertaken by Slack and Duolingo, 58% said they were unaware of specific emojis having multiple meanings. Gen Z’s are reportedly offended by their colleagues’ use of the smiley face emoji. And cultural and geographical differences can mean that one person’s friendly gesture is another’s offense. The relevance of emojis in case law is also growing exponentially, according to Eric Goldman’s 2021 Emoji Law Year-in-Review.
These risks considered, emojis are here to stay and are being increasingly used in the workplace. Many businesses I spoke to noted increased emoji usage after the introduction of digital collaboration tools into their workplace. The landscape of collaborative tools has grown considerably, ranging from instant messaging, video conferencing and whiteboards. Many of these tools have emoji expressions already built-in. Messaging platform Slack, for example, has over 26 million custom emojis since the feature was first introduced.
In particular, emoji usage within digital collaboration tools by the way of “reacjis” has helped facilitate the acceptance of emoji use in the workplace. The term reacji may be new to some, but the concept of acknowledging what others have said through an emoji-like symbol is familiar to most social media users. The “clapping hands” reacji, for example, is often used to acknowledge a job well done or to show appreciation at the end of an online presentation. According to Slack, millions of reacjis are sent over their platform each week. One purported benefit of using emojis in the workplace is an increased efficiency in communications, by replacing follow-up messages and reducing noise. Fifty-eight percent of employees surveyed in the Slack-Duolingo survey say emojis allow them to communicate more nuance with fewer words; while 54% believe that emoji use can speed up workplace communications.
Emojis are also increasingly used as data input for workforce analytics. With a large body of evidence showing that emotions impact performance and innovation, employees are often asked to respond to surveys and polls to log their stress levels, wellbeing and subjective levels of productivity-using Likert scales of 1-5 conveyed through emojis of faces ranging from a large smile to a downturned mouth. Emotion analytics and keeping track of emotional moods is becoming a standard human resources practice.
Research on the use of emojis in the workplace have generated conflicting findings. Some studies have found that the use of emojis in business context or formal communications result in warmth, perceived empathy and enhanced social presence but also lower competence attributions, especially in customer service settings. Another study revealed that negative emojis tend to increase negative emotions, while positive emojis tend to have a positive effect in complex communications.
The current verdict is that there is no evidence-based advice on the appropriate use of emojis in the workplace. For those who are new or hesitant to use emojis in workplace settings, one might start with simple “ reacjis” by following the emojis cues of colleagues in how they react on official messaging channels. And when using emojis, it’s always helpful to keep in mind who your audience is, how you might use emojis and when is the best time to connect.