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In the last year, organizations around the globe switched to remote operations on short notice due to COVID-19. In lieu of the proximal in-person office experience, remote workers have tapped a slew of tools to communicate and collaborate from afar. During the virtual workday, myriad emojis have reshaped traditional linguistic cues across messaging and video conferencing platforms. But these symbols offer remote teams more than a little lighthearted entertainment.

“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,” said Christina Janzer, Slack’s senior director of research.

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Bridging virtual communication gaps with emoji

In 2020, there were 117 new emojis released bringing the total to 3,136, according to a September World Economic Forum post. While it is interesting to know that someone is keeping tabs on emoji proliferation, these figures cannot account for the innumerable user-created emojis created and uploaded to various platforms to signify glee, confirm receipt, echo agreement, show dismay or even cue the virtual confetti.

Specific totals aside, there are advantages to using these nontraditional characters in digital correspondence; especially in the age of remote work at scale. Listing the benefits of emojis in business discourse, Janzer said these symbols can make online work communication “more productive,” as people can efficiently deploy emojis “like a visual code or shorthand” to communicate status for a range of workflows and projects.

Using a series of examples ranging from reacting with the “eyes” emoji to convey that a report has been seen to simply tagging a Slack comment with a check mark, Janzer said these communication tools can situationally convey information without unnecessarily alerting or updating all pastries in a particular channel.

“These may sound simple, but they actually eliminate unnecessary notifications and save time spent on typing out responses,” she said. “At Oscar Health, a direct-to-consumer health insurance company, every care team has a custom emoji, which is used as a ‘read receipt’ on important announcements.”

Beyond time savings and fail-safes, there is of course the entertainment element inherent in emoji communication. Simply put, Janzer said, “emojis make work more fun.”

“They allow employees to express themselves and create a pleasant, more inclusive and welcoming work environment. Emojis also enhance messages and can offer a quick way to express support or celebrate team members’ accomplishments,” Janzer said.

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Referencing a Slack survey released earlier this year, Janzer said the majority of respondents (61%) said connecting with coworkers has been easier since the switch to remote work and 69% reported that emojis made them feel more connected with their colleagues.

Paul D. Hunt, typeface designer and font developer at Adobe, said 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, citing Adobe’s July Global Emoji Trend Report.

“These small but mighty characters can transform business productivity, enabling teams to quickly share ideas and streamline decision-making. Interestingly, our survey found that emoji can even reduce the need for meetings and calls,” Hunt said.

Emoji and the indeterminacy of language

While these symbols may help teams streamline communication and even add a bit of humor to virtual communication, there are risks to consider, namely those associated with indeterminacy. After all, one emoji may have a very different internalized meaning to two separate people in the same chat, let alone the various individuals across an entire Slack channel.

Additionally, Zoom meetings, sans the body language and other cues of in-person communication, often comparatively lack this communicative richness. Situationally, emojis may help shore up some of these indeterminacies and communication gaps. In remote and hybrid work arrangements, Janzer said emojis “can actually be a way to mitigate indeterminacy in business communication.”

“When you’re in person, you’re looking at somebody’s facial expressions, you’re hearing the intonation in their voice, you can see whether they’re happy or sad. But when you’re communicating digitally, that’s all stripped away and it’s hard to know what the text really means,” Janzer said. “Adding emojis to messages really helps to clarify the meaning of the communication and reduce misinterpretation.”

Overall, Hunt reiterated similar sentiments regarding emojis and their ability to enhance and add clarity to digital correspondence.

“Language can be very abstract, especially in the digital realm, so using emoji can help workplace communications by approximating tone of voice, gestures and reactions through imagery,” they said.

Additionally, they said emoji usage makes it easier for people to express themselves and “impart” their personalities into digital conversations as well as “lighten the conversation” and express empathy using more positive emojis.

“Emoji help us connect more deeply to the feeling and intention behind our messages. Emoji are often criticized for being overly saccharine, but they are crucial in reducing the harshness of digital communications that can often be misconstrued by words alone,” Hunt said.