Emojis in the workplace HEAD
12th Jul 2019
3 Min Read

Emojis in the workplace. Thumbs up or down?

Kate Went
Kate Went
IC & Engagement

In the world of emojis, a lot has changed in a short time. A few years ago, the Oxford Dictionary announced their ‘Word of the Year’ was, in fact, not a word at all, but a pictograph universally acknowledged as the default response to jokes, banter and all-round hilarity – the ‘face with tears of joy’ emoji.

Since then, we’ve seen numerous fresh releases, with a drive to make emoji characters more diverse and inclusive.

But what about work? Linguistic trends have a way of making their way into the workplace. You only need to look at much-loathed corporate phrases such as ‘blue sky thinking’ to see how sticky workplace words can be. But are emojis sliding into acceptability, or are they still viewed as NSFW?

Why use emojis in the workplace anyway?

Emails hold a lot of potential for misinterpretation as it’s hard to determine their intended tone. To get around this, we make our language softer or long-winded to appear more approachable, because we feel uncomfortable giving direct commands.

The workplace can be fraught with political undertones and sometimes, adding a smiley face to indicate a friendly intention, feels like a quick way to defuse this.

Emojis also provide visual shorthand. Why type a long sentence when a simple thumbs up or tick will do the job much faster?

The generation gap

Studies have shown that there is a split in attitudes to the use of emojis at work. Younger workers raised alongside social media and digital communication are more likely to give them a thumbs up, while workers 45 years and older tend to view the use of emojis in the workplace as ‘lowering the tone’.

Misreading the signs

We might assume that emojis, like hieroglyphics, are the clearest and most simple form of communication with no language barriers to muddy the tone. But emojis are just as open to misinterpretation as the words they represent.

One person’s innocent cheeky wink or blowing kiss icon is another’s sexual harassment claim.

Know your audience

As any IC professional will attest, effective communication – in any form – is about knowing your audience. Since emojis are not the universal standard method of communication in the workplace (and, most likely, never will be) it’s best to err on the side of caution before firing off the facepalm emoji.

Every workplace, industry and indeed, workforce is different. The ways colleagues in retail, leisure and hospitality sectors connect are often informal, and start-ups often enjoy a more relaxed style of communication, even from their leaders.

Communication in more traditional, professional service sectors and older, established organisations may be slower on the uptake.

It’s easy to imagine the folks at Facebook sending each other strings of emojis, whereas it may be some time before the legal sector sees its partners signing off their emails with a little wig and gavel.

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