Emojis and How They Aid Communication in The Remote Era

Emojis have gone mainstream at work. How can they help us better understand each other in a professional environment?

In the era of remote work, some of the biggest challenges lie in the realms of communication and wellbeing. Burnout is on the rise, and candidates are seeking out jobs where flexibility is prioritised, so in turn they can prioritise their life over their work. So what are the tools at our disposal to help us communicate better with each other? Sure, Slack and Zoom have saved the day in terms of enabling us to stay in touch more effectively, but the meeting fatigue is the side effect of all this face time through a screen. We know that, in this virtual scenario, our brains overcompensate for the lack of subtle, in-person signals we instinctively read when we’re in a room with our colleagues.

But is there a way of sharing non-verbal cues in an online world that can aid us in our quest to communicate more efficiently? The answer is yes, and the solution lies in emojis. 

Emojis in a Remote Work Setting

More connected than ever before - but at a distance. This could sum up the condition of remote working. An arsenal of emojis is part of the new lexicon that is helping us navigate this terrain. In 2020, there were 3,136 emojis in existence, with 5 billion being used every day on Facebook and Facebook Messenger alone. 

Christina Janzer, Slack’s senior director of research, spoke about the state of remote work communication, saying, “Due to the pandemic, the workplace is changing and the bar for organizational agility has gone up quickly. Decisions need to get made quickly, people need to stay connected, and there’s an enormous and largely unmet demand for an easier way to coordinate and align people.” 

This need for speed has spelled an uptick in emoji usage, especially in messaging apps like Slack, which, by their very nature, exist to make our communication more seamless. Far from seeming unprofessional and casual, emojis have instead become a shorthand used to bridge gaps in our virtual communication. Janzer cited a recent Slack survey, in which 69% of respondents said that emojis made them feel more connected with their colleagues.

Emojis and Employee Wellbeing

An academic paper from the University of Michigan exploring the use of emojis at GitHub says, “Emotions at work have long been identified as critical signals of work motivations, status, and attitudes, and as predictors of various work-related outcomes. When more and more employees work remotely, these emotional signals of workers become harder to observe through daily, face-to-face communications.” 

In the context of virtual and remote work, emojis are becoming stand-ins for the non-verbal cues we miss out on from face to face interactions, and can give us some insight into an employee's emotional wellbeing. Managers are now expected to pay attention not just to how their team is performing, but also to how they are feeling. 

Are staff expressing themselves, and if not, why? If they are, is it a given that they are being heard? The GitHub article tracked emoji usage in relation to dropout rates, and deduced that, “developers who use emojis in their posts are significantly less likely to dropout from the online work platform.” So it seems that those who more readily use emojis in their communication are actively expressing their emotions, a sign of emotional wellbeing which will be helpful to managers in terms of gauging the temperature of staff morale. 

Dropout rate and positive vs negative emotions with emojis

Emojis in Business Communication 

It is widely accepted, whether we have recognised it or not, that emoji use makes our communication more nuanced. In an effort to translate these nuances (as they relate to both employee wellbeing and performance) into an extra tool of communication, some organisations have developed a standardised set of emojis for use within their company. 

Software development company Arc is always trying to optimise its collaborative processes, so it has put together a list of Slack emojis for its team members to use to streamline its communications. These emojis are broken into two sets - ones to start messages with, and ones to react to messages with. The implementation of this emoji list has improved clarity, fostering better and more efficient remote collaboration in the following ways:

  • Clarifying the meaning of messages and actions
  • Quickly telling your team member what you are asking them to do/what you have done
  • Letting people know that you have seen their message and/or are working on their request
  • Enabling asynchronous team members to catch up on other team members’ task progress at a glance

And it’s not just communication that emojis can help with. Paul D. Hunt, a developer at Adobe, pulled research from Adobe’s July Global Emoji Trend Report, which said that emoji usage in work communication provides a number of “unexpected benefits” ranging from “making people feel more connected and more receptive to new tasks” to “increasing creativity”.