Business management

Connecting at work: Can a happy emoji say it all?

The surge of digitalisation within the workplace is roundly believed to make us more efficient, but it’s also a virtual stepping stone to less formal interaction. Here are some things to consider.

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Originating in Japan, emoticons – and their pictorial cousins, emojis – have been popping up in some shape or form for over 20 years. The Unicode Consortium, a non-profit organisation that approves the emoji’s ever-expanding library, oversees a new cluster landing on our digital desks annually.

Practical tips on using emojis in the digital workspace:

  • Emojis are a great way of replacing face-to-face feedback, eg by communicating a job well done, with positive emojis being generally well-received.
  • Know your audience – some of your team may be more comfortable with emojis than others. Be aware of cultural, inclusive and generational nuances.
  • They can have different meanings, so perhaps stick to a simple, familiar set that caters to everyone and won’t be misinterpreted.
  • Try not to use them in place of an explanation or as an answer to something that needs more in-depth clarification.

Celebrating emojis

For last year’s World Emoji Day (yes, it’s a thing and it’s up next on 17 July), business messaging app Slack and language learning app Duolingo carried out a global survey of workers, which found that:

  • 53% of respondents usually include an emoji when they message colleagues, while 30% never do with their boss.
  • 67% of respondents feel closer and more bonded in a conversation when messaging someone who understands the emoji they’re using.
  • Around 58% were unaware of a single emoji having multiple meanings.

How are you feeling today?

A priority for many businesses is how best to ensure the wellbeing of their staff. Team leaders want to support employees when necessary and be open to any concerns.

The Covid-19 lockdowns set the challenge of staying in touch while working from home and this has remained rooted in today’s hybrid approach. A recent survey carried out by Harvard Business Review revealed that leaders using emojis to connect with their team did so in place of physical cues in a virtual workplace.

This can inform emotional intelligence, creating a safe space where team members can be reassured that their feelings are valued and acknowledged, resulting in a more productive environment. In fact, in a survey of 3,000 adults aged 16 to 65, Samsung reported that 87% preferred to use tools such as GIFs to communicate their feelings.

Supporting inclusion

Diversity and accessibility have burrowed into recent iterations, with ongoing calls for a wider range to reflect our ever-changing society. In a survey of 7,000 global emoji users, Software company Adobe found that:

  • 83% said “a more inclusive representation of users is needed”
  • 78% felt there should be more customisation options to address inclusion
  • 79% think this can help raise awareness of diversity (Adobe’s the Future of creativity: 2022 emoji trend report).

For the last five years grassroots group Emojination has been intent on ushering in new and inclusive icons, going by the motto “emoji is by the people, for the people”. 

Clap emoji: know your audience

It isn’t surprising that emojis are commonplace these days but you need to know your audience. Proponents might insist that emojis break through a layer of formality with a light touch and boost of positivity, but equally they could be an irritant if not employed with insight and caution.

Having experienced a natural uptick in the last few years, work management tools like WhatsApp, Telegram, Slack and now even Twitter have an expanding collection of emojis to react to a direct message. Handy, perhaps, for those who are unsure about their use/impact or if there’s a cultural or intergenerational divide.

It helps to be agile in your own use of them – you might find they work well with one colleague but opt to use them more sparingly with another. 

The generation game

Unsurprisingly, millennials and Gen Z are more far-reaching in their use of emojis, while Gen X and baby boomers might vary in their day-to-day use, both personally and at work.

Here’s a reminder of the different generations and why it might pay off to remember who you’re communicating with. There are:

  • Baby boomers (from around 1946-1964) and Generation X (1966-1980), who will have seen transformational tech and a real change in areas such as business travel as more informal messaging and videoconferencing became established.
  • For Millennials (1981-1996) technology is familiar and flexible, and so is communication, while Generation Z (1996-2012) tend to be very comfortable with social media, and instant messaging.

So this image-driven lexicon may not quite bridge the intergenerational gap but there are ways to meet in the middle. Be open to change and take advantage of any training on offer but, equally, allow staff to be honest about what they’re comfortable with.

It’s likely that the variety of emojis employed increases with each generation, which means a single emoji may have developed multiple meanings.

According to Emojipedia, the top 10 emojis used globally don’t vary hugely, so they may be a safer bet than dipping into the 3,600 plus now on offer; perhaps simple, familiar emojis are better for team-wide chats.

Whatever your preference, it looks like a well-meaning emoji is here to stay.

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