When David Chin, creative lead at the software company MURAL, is settling into his workday, he’ll send introductions to his team with a furry companion: the otter emoji. Laying on its back, paws splayed jauntily across its belly and wearing an unconcerned smile, the custom Slack emoji adds levity to his morning routine.
“It’s the perfect opportunity,” he said. “Otter emoji.”
What’s the subtext? What does the otter symbolize? That’s harder to articulate.
“Sometimes, emoji don’t mean really anything in particular,” he said. “For some reason, this emoji, at this time, represents how I’m feeling, or my personality. That sounds kind of bizarre, right?”
Maybe. But while the semiotics of the otter are ambiguous, the goal is clear: to lighten the mood and build camaraderie on his team. Emoji, in short, are all about vibes.
Launched to the public in 1997, emoji, named after the Japanese word for “pictograph,” have come a long way since the first set appeared on the SkyWalker DP-211SW. Now infused in nearly every aspect of mainstream culture, the emotive icons are used by 92 percent of people online, appear in more than one in five tweets, and can be found in reports from the White House, at airport security gates, in employee satisfaction forms and in countless online surveys.
If the debate five years ago was whether emoji constituted a new type of language or were simply lazy lexical stand-ins, the more relevant question now is what HR teams and executives can do to help their teams navigate the tonal and emotional nuances of a growing lexicon of faces, hearts, praying hands and rocket ships.
How to Use Emoji at Work (Appropriately)
- Boosting productivity. Using emoji as read receipts can help managers keep tabs on which team members have seen and read important announcements. Emoji such as ? or ✅ work well.
- Expressing personality and tone. Emoji can help soften messages that might be read as curt or impolite, standing in as punctuation or adding expressiveness to brief messages.
- Indicating status. Icons showing when someone is out for a walk, tending to children or doing deeply focused work can help other team members quickly understand their availability.
- Celebrating accomplishments. Fireworks, clinking glasses and confetti are quick, visual ways to recognize individual and team milestones. To ensure recognition is equitable and doesn’t become a popularity contest, managers and team members should be aware of those who may be less recognized..
- Fostering inclusion. Being intentional about representations of emoji skin tone and gender can increase feelings of belonging and camaraderie among colleagues.
- Empathizing with users. Emoji are often effective in social media marketing, where users have come to expect lighter, more informal communication.
The Rise of Emoji in the Workplace
Even before the pandemic, emoji use was widespread among workplace teams, said Christina Janzer, VP of Research & Analytics at Slack. Dropping emoji into instant messaging chat services let collaborators communicate more informally and expressively.
Gone, or nearly gone, were cold, rehearsed emails beginning, “I hope this finds you well.” In their place were blushing smiles with lips crinkled at the corners, dancing amoeba-like blobs, maybe a camel on Wednesday. Clicking on emoji to affirm or echo reactions became a way to take a quick show of hands, celebrate a birthday or software update, or recognize an employee for a notable achievement.
Not only did emoji take the edge off office chatter, Janzer told me, they streamlined information exchange. By at least one estimate, the brain processes images between 6 and 600 times faster than plain text, making emoji comparatively easy to digest. They’re also remarkably easy to send. Instant message composers often organize emoji by themes and present a quick access menu of frequently used selections. If you don’t quickly see the expression you want, you can often search for it. Type in “smile” on the search bar in Slack’s emoji dialog box, for example, and you’ll find more than a dozen options: a grin, a laughing smile, a sweating smile, smiling eyes, a tongue-wagging smile, a smiling cat, a smiling imp.
During the pandemic, emoji took on even greater significance, Janzer says. In the absence of face-to-face communication, they helped remote teams fill in gaps in body language by adding warmth or personality where a smile or laugh no longer could. In a sense, they became emblematic of a more widespread shift in work culture.
“We’re seeing in increasing numbers that people want to be much more informal, much more casual and more expressive in the way that they work,” Janzer said. “Playfulness doesn’t have to be antithetical to work.”
A Slack-commissioned survey of 2,000 U.S.-based dispersed work teams by the market research company OnePol supports that sentiment. The survey found 72 percent of employees “hope to continue to use informal work messages instead of workplace jargon” and 78 percent of respondents said “the use of emoji and GIFs has made work feel more flexible, friendly and inclusive.”
How Public Should Emotions Be at Work?
Some critics, however, say the proliferation of emoji in the workplace raises legitimate design and human resource concerns. Are employees comfortable being so open and “seen” at work? Is it emotionally exhausting for employees to be constantly logging their moods with emoji? Is selecting the perfect smiley face (or monkey face) to indicate a subtle mood taking employees away from deep work? Do emoji leave room for those whose emotional or mental states differ from those of their colleagues?
In an essay published in Journal of Visual Culture, Esther Leslie, a professor of political aesthetics at Birkbeck, University of London, describes emoji as “emblems of … affective labor, miniscule badges of the ways in which we are asked to log our moods.” At several points in the essay, she expresses concern about how emotional data is being tracked and archived by HR teams. Are services that use facial expressions as indicators of employee engagement and satisfaction, she asks, “a stage in turning the employee into an on-the-shelf item in a digital economy warehouse, assessed by Likert scales?”
These questions are not likely to be unpacked in an employee handbook or orientation video, but as emoji become more common in the workplace, they are worth considering. The most immediate charge for executives, product leads and HR teams, however, may be getting employees up to speed on emoji vocabulary and etiquette.
“Emoji etiquette is important,” Janzer said. “And I think it’s important to consider the way that people will potentially misinterpret these things. The kissy face is a perfect example. I will use that with people at work who I have a very trusting relationship with. People I know will never misinterpret that. It’s used to express admiration for a really amazing project.”
Still, Jazner said she would not use the emoji with her boss, nor would she feel comfortable if a senior male colleague sent it to her.
“You have to take responsibility for the emoji that you create the same way that you have to be responsible for the words that you use at work,” she said. “They should be appropriate, respectful.”
But being respectful means having at least a modestly proficient emoji vocabulary — something not everyone has. Beyond that, employees may not understand the varied connotations emoji can evoke based on the context of their use and the relationship between the sender and recipient.
Non-Literal Meanings Are What Give Emoji Power
Jennifer Daniel is the emoji subcommittee chair for Unicode, a global consortium that defines standards for more than 3,600 emoji. In a blog post for the consortium she notes that, as with words in any language, the non-literal meaning of emoji is often what makes them popular.
“Top-ranked emoji,” she writes, “consistently represent multiple concepts so they are used in a wider variety of situations.” In the context of clothing, for example, “the top used is crown ? while the emoji collecting cobwebs in your keyboard seem to lack non-literal uses (like clutch bag ?, lab coat ? and flat shoe ?).”
Ambiguity, in other words, gives emoji their power. A crown is never just a crown.
Few understand emoji’s malleability better than Gedeon Maheux, the principal of Iconfactory, a graphic design firm that has developed emoji sets for Twitter, Facebook Messenger and, most recently, WhatsApp.
One of his favorite examples of the confusion emoji can cause is the enigmatic skull and crossbones. While the symbol is likely to be understood by millennials or Gen Z users as “dying from laughter,” older employees may find it macabre. Conversely, tears of joy, the world’s most popular emoji, which accounts for more than 5 percent of all emoji use, may be viewed as old-fashioned by younger employees. Understood in context, though, the two emoji are virtually synonymous.
Language is always changing; it’s what gives it potency and nuance. But in the workplace, Maheux told me, clarity is paramount and there are limits to what constitutes acceptable use.
Descriptive standards set by the Unicode, the governing body for computer symbols, including emoji, largely dictate what emoji Iconfactory develops for large social media companies. However, custom emoji packages for internal sales apps, or work messaging platforms like Slack and Discord, tend to be much more limited. Emoji like the peach and eggplant that carry sexual undertones are generally off limits, Maheux said, though in a custom emoji set for a dating app service that might not be the case.
Emoji can also get sidelined for social and geopolitical reasons. An emoji set created for a client based in China might not include the Taiwanese flag because the People’s Republic of China does not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation.
“It really comes down to where it’s being used, who’s seeing it, who’s using it and what their priorities are,” Maheux said. “Do they want the emoji to be faithful representations of the Unicode Consortium’s intent? Is it for the internal use of a company? Or is a bit of a forward-facing, public social media application?”
Skin Tone Modifiers, Status Indicators and Reactions
Creating clear workplace rules and guidelines for emoji use is, of course, where the real challenge lies.
Even in highly controlled design environments, core emoji sets can go through dozens of iterations before being approved by clients. While the symbols themselves are more or less predetermined by the Unicode Consortium, their visual expression is constantly evolving. Many gun emoji now look like water pistols, Maheux said, because Apple’s design team chose to make the weapon’s image appear less threatening and other companies followed suit.
Skin tones are another complex design consideration. Five skin tone options and a Simpsons-like default yellow are defined by Unicode, Maheux told me, but their shading and highlights and how they should be represented on particular emoji are left up to individual designers.
“We’re constantly testing and revising when it comes to skin tones,” Maheux said. “For handshakes, faces, people, all those in both light environments and dark environments, big displays and tiny ones, because they can all make a difference.”
Considerations of race, identity, and representation become even more nuanced when applied to employee etiquette and self-expression in the digital workspace. A 2018 study published by the University of Edinburgh that examined the use of skin tone emoji on Twitter found users “take advantage of emoji skin tone modifiers to represent an important aspect of their identity, and do so differentially depending on their own skin tone: compared to light-skinned users (the majority on Twitter), a higher proportion of dark-skinned users use skin tone modifiers, and they use them more frequently.”
As emoji use in the workplace proliferates, executives and managers are wise to keep in mind that choices about representation are deeply personal and, with the exception of offensive appropriations such as digital blackface, employees deserve wide latitude in how they express themselves.
A more clearly defined policy might be to encourage emoji use to expedite aspects of remote work that are awkward or time-consuming to convey in words. Like real-time gaps in availability. Telling your team you’re at home with kids who require your attention or that your Wi-Fi is on the fritz — two of the status indicators depicted in a Slack emoji pack created by designer Jen Lewis — requires a measure of tact. It can be faster and more socially graceful to ping teammates with a funny or self-deprecating emoji.
A more generalizable risk of workplace emoji is that employees will seek validation in the frequency of reactions they receive on workplace messengers, a phenomenon Chin said can leave less outspoken or less recognized employees feeling insecure or slighted.
“That’s why if there’s somebody who doesn’t have a big voice and they share something on Slack, I’m going to do my best to respond positively,” he said. “Maybe even more than I would for somebody who shares all the time.”
Should Your Company Have Its Own Emoji and Rulebook?
To formalize best practices for emoji use, Slack created an emoji glossary for its employees and devised internal guidelines for how and when to use emoji. If a raccoon emoji pops up after a text exchange, Janzer said, it means the conversation is important, but doesn’t belong inside a particular channel. An angry red-faced emoji might be appropriate to send when expressing frustration about a software bug. It’s not okay to use as a personal attack.
Increasingly, companies are looking outside the Unicode sets for emoji that reflect a distinctive brand identity or work culture. A sticker set Iconfactory developed for the beauty company Mary K’s mobile app features pink hearts, lips, and festive party icons, a reflection of the brand’s emphasis on style and elegance. To lighten the mood in its internal Slack channels, Mural has created custom emoji characters like Spiderman, Kool-Aid Man, and Mario and Luigi. At Slack, employees use the platform’s emoji creator to generate photorealistic emoji of employees embellished with, say, party hats. These are dropped into office channels to celebrate work accomplishments.
Productboard Head of Global Brand Studio Brennan McGuigan said emoji expressions, in many ways, are analogous to those in the physical world, and should be understood similarly.
“From a design standpoint, the way I see emoji are as facial expressions,” he said. “One-on-one communication, like you’re meeting with somebody for the first time. You can learn a lot from a person by their facial expressions.”
Maheux told me that work emoji should be “more direct, unambiguous, fun and light” than those in general use.
Janzer, who rarely used emoji before coming to Slack, said it has taken her some time to learn the office lingo. A longtime fan of the comic strip Cathy, she was baffled when she first saw the ‘ACK’ emoji.
“I thought it was for delivering bad news,” she said. “Like, the data warehouse was broken. Then I realized other people used it as shorthand for ‘acknowledged,’ to say they acknowledged the receipt of a message.”
In other words, Janzer learned by experience. That’s a common occurrence for many employees entering a new era of workplace communication. In her case, Slack’s glossary and guidelines were a helpful start, but not all employees have that luxury.
Above all, she told me, it’s best to err on the side of caution when teasing out the boundaries and expectations of newly formed office relationships. If you are mentally asking yourself whether or not to use a particular emoji, don’t. Pick a more direct one. There will be time for funny ones later.