Ten years ago, emojis were mostly relegated to texts, tweets, and emails between family and friends. Back then, the thought of using emojis in any sort of professional communication would have made most people cringe. In fact, as recently as 2017, research suggested that smiley emojis used in work emails actually decreased perceptions of competence.
Oh, how times have changed!
Now, with the lines between professional and personal life more blurred than ever, these whimsical characters have become a cultural phenomenon that’s quickly making its way into every aspect of life—including, you guessed it, emojis at work. Here’s why they’re all the rage.
Why Do People Use Emojis?
Communicating via symbols is nothing new—humans have been using pictures and symbols (think: hieroglyphics) to communicate for many thousands of years. Archaeologists have even uncovered the first “smiley” symbol on a 4,000-year-old pot in Turkey. The first actual emoticon (emotion + icon) was a 🙂 posted by a computer scientist on a bulletin board at Carnegie Mellon in 1982. Emojis (like an emoticon, but an actual pictograph) came on the scene about a decade later.
Of course, our reasons for using emojis in this day and age go beyond just needing to convey basic information, but the overriding principle remains the same: they help illustrate our thoughts and feelings, especially when the written word falls short.
More often than not, emojis are used to portray positivity and support, which may explain their increasing popularity. Adobe’s 2019 Emoji Trend Report found that 93% of people surveyed use emojis to lighten conversations, and 91% use them to show support to others. People who use emojis are also looked at favorably, with 81% of respondents believing that emoji users are more friendly and approachable.
You know that warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you see a smiley or silly face emoji? There’s a reason for that. Research indicates that our brain processes emojis in much the same way that we process human faces. So, even if we can’t see the person we’re “talking” to when we receive an emoji, our brain reacts similarly as if we were seeing their face. And, our brains interpret emojis as nonverbal information, so we interpret them as emotional communication.
With such powerful effects, it’s no wonder that emojis are helping shape the future of all types of communication, including in the workplace.
Emojis and Professional Communications at Work
Now that so many people are working remotely with less face-to-face interactions at work, finding new ways of communicating has become essential. The problem, though, is that most methods of virtual correspondence—professional emails and instant messages—can be easily misconstrued, leading to all sorts of misunderstandings.
Especially in a remote working environment, a lack of access to nonverbal cues (like body language) makes interpreting communications even harder. Emojis, in their weird and wonderful way, help clarify written correspondence by conveying emotions and setting the tone in a universal language that everyone understands.
Imagine this: You ask your manager for an extension on your deadline for a report you’ve been working on for weeks. Their response is, “That’s fine. You can have one more day.” The tone sounds a little clipped, does it not? Or at the very least, a bit annoyed? Now, try this: “That’s fine. You can have one more day 😁 .” It’s just one smiley face but think about the difference in how it makes you feel. Better, right?
Using emoticons and emojis can supplement the lack of nonverbal cues we have access to when corresponding online. And, research shows that using emojis properly (especially positive ones) helps with both relationship formation and cognitive understanding. In a fully remote workplace where you may not meet your coworkers in person, using emojis to convey emotion, emphasis, and nuance in tone can create a stronger connection.
How and When to Use Emojis at Work
If you’re ready to use emojis at work, you’re joining a healthy majority. According to Adobe’s survey, 61% of respondents use emojis at work, and 74% feel that emojis make positive news more sincere. When it comes to likability and credibility, 78% and 63%, respectively, feel emojis have a positive impact in the workplace.
Not sure which emojis to use? Well, you have millions to choose from! Besides the thousands available on your email and text platforms, more than 26 million emojis have been created in Slack, including remote work-specific emojis that can help you let colleagues know that your cat is on your keyboard
, you’re making your kids some lunch and will be right back , or you are focused (headphones on, head down) on deep work .
Before taking the plunge, though, there are some emoji best practices to keep top of mind. These eight tips can help you navigate the sometimes tricky question of when to use emojis at work.
1. Know Your Company Emoji Culture
More and more, companies are creating policies that include utilizing certain emojis for specific situations. For example, your company may use a thinking emoji
to preface any communication that involves brainstorming or presenting new ideas. Or, the celebratory 🎉 may be standard for recognizing birthdays and anniversaries. Get to know your company’s emoji culture and dive right in!
2. Proceed With Caution
When it comes to using emojis, the difference between a startup with a multi-generational staff and a more buttoned-up company that tends to embrace traditional methods of communication can be striking. If your company is more of the latter, emojis at work may not have caught on yet and could come across as immature or unprofessional. Take a realistic look at your company’s overall tone and culture before using emojis, and proceed cautiously.
3. Look at Different Perspectives
As with everything in life, emojis are open to interpretation. What you may see as the “I’m getting through this and persevering face” (😣 ), coworkers may interpret as annoyed or frustrated. Likewise, a face blowing a kiss 😘 may feel to you like a harmless way to thank a colleague for helping on a project but could be interpreted as flirting by whomever you send the emoji to. Before you send an emoji, think about how the person on the receiving end may interpret it.
4. Know Your Audience
Because emojis are images and gestures, you have to know your audience and take cultural considerations into account as well. For instance, let’s say you have a coworker in China who you regularly communicate with. The waving hand emoji 👋 is one of the top emojis used in the U.S., but in China, it’s an offensive sign-off akin to, “don’t let the door hit you on the way out!” In the U.K., the peace sign ✌️ isn’t a joyful way to spread peace and love—it’s a very unfriendly gesture telling someone to (to put it very nicely) “take a hike.” Emojis have been the subject of many court cases, so use them wisely and with good intentions.
5. Stick With Professional Emojis
Hopefully this doesn’t need saying, but certain emojis just aren’t appropriate in a work environment. Stay away from any that can be misinterpreted or offensive, even if you think they’re funny
and stick with those that show your kindness, emotional intelligence, and professionalism
6. Check Your Platform
As you combine emojis and professional communications, keep in mind which platform you’re communicating on to help you decide if and when emojis at work are appropriate. An instant messaging tool like Slack or a quick text to your teammate is much more conducive to a string of congratulatory emojis than a run-of-the-mill project update email. Typically, the more formal the communication, the less emojis.
7. Show Your Emotional Intelligence
In a remote work environment, the written word reigns supreme in communications, but words aren’t always enough to convey the emotion that’s so integral to a healthy workplace. Well-placed and thoughtful emojis can help defuse stressful situations and show empathy when a coworker needs support. Similarly, emojis can go a long way toward making a new coworker feel welcome—and will send the message that you are approachable.
8. Use Your Words
The key to using emojis at work is using them consciously to enhance—not replace—your words. They can be fun and playful or supportive and caring, but they should never take the place of your professional communications. If you find that your emojis are taking over your screen, take a step back, reevaluate, and find your love of words again!
Communicate With Care
Using emojis at work can help you set the tone, bond more closely with your coworkers, and show that you’re a caring member of the team. When your written communications have that human touch, you’re bound to create a more positive work environment for yourself and everyone you work with.
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