Are your work chats filled with emojis? Or are they all text, all-the-time? In this episode, we debate if emojis belong in workplace communication at all.
Debater Maren Hotvedt points out the problems with emoji, including cringe-worthy misinterpretations and accessibility challenges. She’s joined by accessibility researcher and assistant professor at Rochester Institute of Technology Dr. Garreth Tigwell, and qualitative user experience researcher Esha Shandilya. Emoji super-fan Shannon Winter advocates in favor of emojis as a culture builder and tool to express identity, with support from Tomoko Yokoi, entrepreneur and researcher on digital innovation at International Institute for Management Development and ETH Zurich.
Article by Tomoko Yokoi
Research by Dr. Garreth Tigwell
Research by Esha Shandilya
Survey by Slack and Duolingo
History of Emoji by Wired
Christine: Hey, Maren. Hey, Shannon. So excited that you're both here. I'm gonna start this episode a little different than normal. I'd love for you both to introduce yourselves by your top used emoji.
Shannon: Oh wow.
Maren: On the spot!
Christine: Shannon, you’re up first.
Shannon: This is a really good question.The first one that came to mind, we have this one in our Atlassian Slack, but it’s Michelle Tanner from the show Full House. And it’s the thumbs up where she's doing the, like, “You got it dude.” Yeah. I think I just find it more exciting than just your average thumbs up.
Maren: You’re making me feel kind of bad, Shannon, because I actually think the regular thumbs up probably is my most used emoji.
Christine: Oh no, that's one of my most used emojis too! Don't worry about it!
Maren: Yeah, and, and we'll get into this later, but I have, I have concerns, Christine, for us, because there are some implications to that I was unaware of prior to researching for this.
Shannon: Uh oh.
Christine: Welcome to Work Check, an original podcast from Atlassian where we debate whether workplace practices are still working for us. I'm your host and Judge Christine Dela Rosa, and I like my emojis, like I like my party platters: serve only what you think others are able to digest.
Which brings me to today's debate: should you use emojis at work?
Shannon, you are arguing that we should use emojis at work. I'll say from personal experience working with you, you may win the prize for first to adopt newly added emojis for our team chats. Is your strategy to just speak from personal experiences?
Shannon: Kind of! I mean, this is definitely the topic that feels closest to my heart that I've done on this show, so I'm a big emoji fan, that's for sure. I feel like they've always been a huge part of my communication. First, you know, in the text message life realm, and then at work. I've always found it really fun and a great way to get to know people, show personality.
When I first started at Atlassian almost 10 years ago, I was at the front desk originally. And a big part of my job was sorting packages, and most of my communication with people at the company was just pinging people when they had a package like, “Package” exclamation. And they knew that meant come to the front desk and get it.
And then one day someone made me a custom emoji that was called “package” of my head jumping out of a box. And it still exists. Um, but it really made me feel welcome and included and was just like, I was very new to the company, it was just one of those really nice moments where you're like, “Okay, people see me here and like I'm, I'm part of something bigger.”
Christine: I love that. Maren, you're arguing we should not use emojis at work. But I feel like I've seen you use emojis in our chats before, like, like a lot of them. So what do you have to say for yourself?
Maren: Yeah, I mean, I definitely use a lot of emojis, and my LinkedIn bio even says literally, “I'm a fan of emojis.”
Maren: I know, I know, I should have taken them out. But I remember when they first came out – and this was even before emojis, back when they were emoticons, which I see as like pre-emojis – I really thought they were kinda weird and dorky, honestly. And so I've been thinking a lot about what has changed over the intervening years. And I’ve learned some things that have me really rethinking how I use emojis, not just at work but everywhere.
Christine: Awesome. So you're not only trying to convince me, but I see you’re also trying to convince yourself.
Maren: Exactly, exactly.
Christine: Great strategy. Ok, let’s get into it. Shannon, why don't you start us off. Why do emojis belong at work?
Shannon: Alright, thanks Christine. So I think I really want to start by laying out the facts. And the fact is, emojis are just a reality of modern work for a lot of people. I found a study that Duolingo and Slack did in 2022, where they surveyed 9,400 hybrid workers across North America, Asia and Europe. They found that 53% of respondents usually include emoji when they message their colleagues. And this number is likely to increase even more as the digital-native generations grow older.
Shannon: So, I don’t think it’s realistic for us to say, “stop using them.”
And I think one of the main reasons that’s the case, is just the fact that they make communication so much more efficient.
They clarify the tone of a message – which, as we all know, can be a lot tougher to convey in the digital realm than it would be in person when you’re seeing facial cues and body language and all that. So maybe you're making a joke and wanna make sure it's taken that way, so a quick laugh emoji can signal, like, “this is a joke, don't take it personally” without some big explanation or worrying you maybe offended someone. Or even like, you know, you might be delivering more difficult news to a coworker or your team, and you wanna help infuse empathy that's hard to get across with text alone.
Christine: No, I really appreciate that. I mean, I can think of many examples where I may come off…some would say cold, I would say direct, when messaging people. But using an emoji that has a heart on it, or a smirk face, that's a lot easier for me than saying, “I love this,” or something with a lot of emotion in words. So I think I send more human messages because I use emojis.
Shannon: Yeah, I totally agree. And you know, I think a lot of technology that we use can inherently be devoid of emotion. And emojis are a way to infuse some of that humanity back in.
Christine: Yeah. I talk a lot with teams who, as soon as they became remote or started to work more on hybrid teams, their messages became more transactional. It was more, “I need this, can you provide that.” And I do think actually we became less human in our messages.
Shannon: Yeah, yeah! So going back to that same survey from Slack and Duolingo, 69% of American respondents also said that using emoji at work allows them to communicate more nuance with fewer words. So besides just tone, I think nuance is super important to think about too.
And think about reaction emojis. Like, imagine if you couldn’t just easily throw up a thumbs up to say you’ve acknowledged something and instead had to say “acknowledged” or “got it” on every single communication - that would make for some really, really long threads, and even more notifications than we currently have to deal with day to day.
Um, Christine, you and I are on the same team and you know, just the other day you were saying, “Hey, this meeting doesn't really have agenda items. Should we just cancel?” And instead of everyone chiming in with something different, we just got a bunch of thumbs up or check marks, or I think some people use the bless you one cuz they're very excited to get any time back on their calendar.
Christine: Yeah, totally.
Maren: I, uh, I have some thoughts on this. I agree in some cases, emoji reactions can save time, but not always. So for me, it’s one of my greatest pet peeves when I send somebody like a long, beautifully written message and then rather than saying “sounds good” or something, just thumbs up it. And then I literally have to go back and hunt down like, did this person see this thing or not? And it drives me nuts because I'm like, if you said it, I would get a notification and be like, “great.” And now you're actually adding work for me through using reaction emojis. So I think that one's like kind of a double-edged sword.
And I think, this was another point you made, is that they really clarify tone and prevent misunderstandings. And a lot of what I've seen is that they can actually cause misunderstandings or, really backfire. You know, they can be read as flippant or lighthearted.
I actually found a great thread about emojis at work on the Atlassian Community forum, and was really surprised at how anti-emoji people were, and why.
Christine: Oh right, I remember that. It was like last fall?
Maren: Yeah, yeah, that’s the one.
Christine: That was pretty heated.
Maren: It was very heated and mostly negative. And again, like, even though I'm arguing against emojis, I was really surprised at that reaction. And I was scrolling through it this morning, and one of the stories that somebody posted was about a misunderstanding that was so bad, they had to involve HR. So ‘Bob,’ posted something with an emotional load yesterday in a channel that's intended for mutual support. ‘Charlie’ responded with an emoji, and Bob came to me highly upset about it, to ask for help and why Charlie hated them so much. And this person had to basically negotiate between Bob and Charlie and eventually they involved HR and um, they were asking if they could disable any emojis that might be misunderstood. And I thought that was a pretty interesting example of, like, real world miscommunication.
And sometimes these misunderstandings are caused by cultural or generational differences. So I have to talk about the thumbs up, the controversial thumbs up, AKA my most used emoji. So the reason I was saying I need to be embarrassed about this, is apparently the thumbs up is not safe anymore. It has been canceled by…
Christine: By who?
Maren: By younger generations.
Shannon: Oh boy.
Maren: Um, because, well apparently they find it very rude and passive aggressive in, you know, the same way that everyone kind of understands the slightly smiling face is secretly like, really shady. Apparently the thumbs up is now in this category.
Christine: So…I also use the slightly smiling face.
Maren: Not good Christine.
Christine: I gotta rethink how people are taking my reactions.
Shannon: Oh gosh.
Maren: Yeah. Okay, so on that note, I want to bring in my guest, Esha Shandilya, who's a user experience researcher at Chatham Financial. And she's published work on the experience of emoji usage by new employees, as well as some of the cultural issues with emoji that I was alluding to.
Maren: So in her research, she found a lot of examples of emoji that can be interpreted differently by different cultures, so for instance, the emoji of hands pressed together. Here’s Esha.
Esha Shandilya: I have a good example of prayer emoji. So I call it prayer emoji, another person would call it high five emoji. And an emoji having multiple interpretations could lead to conflicts. One of my participants mentioned she was in a culturally diverse group, and then she wanted to thank someone in the team. She used the prayer emoji, and then one of the persons in their team says like, “Hey, we have a thank you word emoji that you should be using rather than the prayer emoji, because it has some religious sentiments, so you should stay away from that.” And that really frustrated my participant, like, why wasn't it told to me in the first place?
Maren: This is a great example of an emoji with hidden meanings and there's so many of them. And not just sort of religious, cultural – there's sort of the emojis with hidden not safe for work meanings. Uh, so I think most people know to avoid like the peach or the eggplant or like the tongue.
I actually didn't know you couldn't use water droplets. So good to know that. And really, one of the dangers here is that new meanings crop up really quickly. Apparently the taco emoji has a new meaning that I was not aware of.
Christine: I don’t know! What is the answer to that?
Maren: You’re gonna have to Google it. I'm not gonna, I'm not gonna say it on a podcast Christine! Look it up, look it up.
Shannon: It’s not safe for work, Christine.
Christine: I feel personally attacked right now.
Maren: The taco's dangerous now.
Christine: Ok, noted, noted.
Maren: And it, you know, it's not just me. I think we all are familiar with this phenomenon and, you know, a poll from Prospectus Global found that 78% of us have used an emoji before finding out it had a hidden meaning.
So there's just some, some danger there when you're straying away from the tried and true emoji set of like the 10 or so that, you know, everyone pretty much understands the meaning of.
Christine: Oh, sorry, I just, I just Googled the Taco emoji.
Maren: Right? The more you know Christine.
Christine: Okay. Carry on. Carry on.
Maren: And so, this is okay when it's, you know, people who have the same sort of understanding of the meanings, right? But this can be a lot when somebody joins a company, they don't wanna misstep, and it can be really stressful to participate in a culture that's communicating in code. And Esha talked about this as well.
Esha Shandilya: The story actually starts at the first day of my internship, and I was kind of nervous because it was a virtual workspace and I did not know what to expect in a remote setup. So I open up my Slack as I was instructed, and then I see a bunch of messages welcoming me. It felt really nice, but overwhelming as well, because like, okay, how do I respond to these messages? Should I also post an emoji or should I post, GIFs, memes?
I was clueless and I did not know like, what is the norm. When you are new to the team, you are so vulnerable. And you are hesitant towards, you know, asking questions. And especially when it comes to using emoji, come on, like, that is not even your job. So, these are things that affect the way you are working, your productivity, everything.
Maren: I was just sort of envisioning like, oh my gosh, how overwhelming would it be to come into Atlassian and suddenly be, you know, thrown into a pit of like, I think we have like thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of custom emojis that you suddenly have to understand the cultural nuances of. And so there's definitely a cultural component.
And I think this is really interesting to me because, you know, we don't talk a lot about our day jobs on this podcast, but I am a user experience designer. And as a designer, you know, we know that very few symbols are universal. So, understood the same way across cultures, across generations. And so in design, it's best practice to always pair icons with a visible text label, and you don't have this with emojis, right? Like there is no text that says this is what I meant when I sent this emoji.
Christine: I know there's no text along with most emoji images, but you can still hover over them to see their alt text, or their labels right? Like, that’s how I read emojis at least.
Maren: True, and I definitely do the same. But that’s an extra step, especially for more unique emoji. And it doesn't actually say what the user intended, just what the alt text is.
Christine: I see. That’s fair.
Maren: And so I think the exact same rules apply to emojis as to icons. You know, they're probably okay to use if you stick with the well understood ones, and include a way for users to understand the intent. But, you know, we don't use them that way, right? Like we just kind of toss them everywhere.
Christine: Uhh this episode is showing me that I need a lot of education on what I type out to other people.
Shannon: Same, this is all really good to know. But I do want to respond to your point, Maren, about new employees because personally, when I was new to Atlassian, I found emojis actually helped me get to know the company culture and feel included in it. And it turns out this is the case with other workplace cultures, too.
Shannon: I actually heard a really great example from my guest, Tomoko Yokoi. She's an entrepreneur and researcher on digital transformation at the International Institute for Management Development in Switzerland. She actually did some research on how teams can use emoji to express company culture.
Tomoko Yokoi: We spoke with a retail company. And the particular culture of that company is one which is very friendly. It's very fun. You know, in physical meetings they have a tendency to hug each other. And so when this culture went into remote work, there was a moment where they had a little bit of reckoning because they didn't know quite how to translate that culture into the digital world.
But soon afterwards, the managers actually went ahead and started proactively using emojis with celebrations, with balloons, you know, with the party poppers. And now at the end of every meeting, instead of saying goodbye and just cutting off, everybody actually posts an emoji, which represents this funness, and that's how they end a meeting. Apparently it goes on for a good one to three minutes. And while it seems a bit too much, it's the exuberance that they were trying to convey to each other, which they could no longer do physically.
Shannon: Yeah, so maybe three minutes of emojis is overkill at the end of a meeting, but I really like that example. It lets you express your culture, and on top of that, emoji have also really let me express my own identity at work.
I see them as a way to just infuse a little personality, especially with custom emoji and the increasing range of different icons that are available to us there. Here’s Tomoko again.
Tomoko Yokoi: People wanted these digital cues to help better represent who they are. And now what I find really interesting about the context of emoji diversification and remote work, was that during the pandemic or in remote work, we actually didn't get to see one another. There were people onboarding into companies without actually meeting people. I think the diversification of emojis has at least given us a tool to be able to represent all of those different ways that people self-identify as. And I think it's particularly important in remote work because it is just another cue for people to communicate who they are, but also to send signals about how other people might perceive them and how they might want to be perceived as well.
Shannon: I totally agree with this. And for me, for example, I loved using that custom package emoji I talked about at the beginning. It was part of my identity at work. And I think it’s also always fun when coworkers start to associate you with different surprising, hopefully delightful emojis that you’re infusing into just run of the mill work chatter. I always try to find emojis that speak to me personally, which often means I’m using a lot of cat emojis because I’m a big cat lover. I recently discovered one called “meow-heart” that’s just like a cat holding a heart… but it’s just more Shannon than a regular old heart! And I think I’ll even try to learn teammate emoji identities and use those in conversation with them - because it’s a whole language, truly, that you can use to relate to each other with.
Christine: Terms of endearment, an affectionate nickname.
Maren: I like that identity point, Shannon, and this diversification of emojis that your guest talked about. But emojis are not actually inclusive for a lot of people. So the last thing I wanna talk about, and this is coming from my experience as a designer, is the role of emojis and accessibility. So accessibility is a practice of ensuring that there are no barriers that prevent people with disabilities from interacting with information.
And one of the problems with emojis is they look really similar for people with low vision, but have very different meanings. When they're blurred, they're pretty much identical looking. So a really good example of this is, like, the slightly smiling emoji and the slightly frowning one.
Chrstine: Oh, they look the same.
Maren: Yeah, yeah, exactly. So imagine there's like a teeny tiny difference, but it means a lot. And this isn't a small problem. Over 2 billion people worldwide have some level of vision impairment.
Christine: I know. I wear glasses, and it's still hard for me.
Maren: Yeah, me too. Me too. And another example of where they can be annoying and hard to interpret is for people who use assistive technology, like screen readers, which basically are a way to verbally read out the text on a screen and help users navigate. And so for more on this, I heard from Dr. Garreth Tigwell, who researches accessibility and computer interaction at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Dr. Garreth Tigwell: Probably one of the biggest challenges that screen reader users do face is messages where there is a lot of emoji, repetitive and bombarding them, and maybe detracting from whatever the key info should be at that point. You know, someone sends you like five laughing emoji in a row – a sighted person might look at that and kind of instantly recognize, okay, they must have found something hilarious. But unfortunately, for screen reader users, say they're going to listen out loud to that. And they're going to hear, you know, “Crying laughing face emoji” five times. So I could imagine it would be very tiring to be continually bombarded with that kind of messaging.
Maren: Yeah, so those are some good points and examples from Garreth. But I think it makes a lot more sense when you can actually hear what it sounds like for yourself. So I put together a little demo for you guys, using my own computer’s screen reader technology. And here's an example of what an emoji-filled message might sound like.
Screen reader: Face with hard shaped eyes. Grinning face with starry eyes. Grinning face with smiling eyes. Beaming face with smiling eyes. Beaming face with smiling eyes. Confetti ball. But let's use them less. Hands pressed together. Because they're very annoying. Disappointed face. Crying face. Person making a cross sign with their arms. For people who use desktop computer readers. Hands raised in celebration.
Christine: You gotta stop this.
Maren: That was it. That was it. But, but this is seriously like one, one sentence that, like, could very feasibly – I, I just put it in chat. You can see it like it's a fairly normal sentence, right?
Christine: No! That is a lot of emojis.
Maren: It's a reasonable amount of emojis.
Christine: That’s one of those spam text messages on a holiday that is overloaded with emojis.
Shannon: Like share this with 10 people or you'll die.
Maren: Well, you clearly do not get texts from my mom because this is literally, you know, exactly the sort of thing I would get. But anyway.
Shannon: I love her.
Maren: Yeah. We love her. Yeah. The challenge here is the best practices aren't well known. So I think we've all talked like emojis are not inherently the problem.
It's that most people, and myself very much included before looking at this, don't know things like, you know, you shouldn't be using multiple emojis in a row. Or that the best place to put them is at the end of your message, so that all of the text that precedes it is still clear. And so, without knowing these guidelines, I think it's just challenging to make your messages accessible to everyone.
Christine: No, I feel that a lot. Just looking at this allegedly not spam text message that you put in the chat, it's kind of an eyesore. I'm not even, I'm wearing my glasses. I'm not visually impaired, but it is difficult to read the message. It's not aiding it in any way. I see it.
Oof. I am learning so much. Thank you so much both. But we need to pause this education, because we're coming to the end of the debate. And as the debater who started us off, Shannon, why don't you wrap it up for us first.
Shannon: Thanks Christine. Yeah, I mean, just to, to comment on Maren's last point. I definitely agree that having guidelines around best practices for how to use emojis is super valid and should be something we all do, especially at work.
But you know, when it comes down to it, I see emojis as another way to express ourselves. They don't replace words or physical gestures completely, but instead they enhance them, and add emotion where it might otherwise be lacking, like in the digital realm, which we're all more and more a part of in this day and age.
You know, they say a picture's worth a thousand words. I think an emoji is too. They help with tone, they help make communication more effective, they help us gauge how our teammates are feeling. And I think these reasons are why they are so ubiquitous in modern work. And while I do think, as we've said, we need to be thoughtful, we probably need some more training around cultural implications, accessibility guidelines, I think cutting them out completely would do more harm than good.
Christine: That makes sense to me. Maren, what do you got?
Maren: Yeah, I mean, I think this has been a really, really interesting episode to research and really think about like my own experience with emojis and how I wanna use them moving forward. And I think to me, what I've realized is that removing or even just minimizing your use really forces you to think more critically and communicate really clearly.
One story I came across was of a woman who conducted a two-week emoji detox where she didn't use them for two weeks. And she said something that really stuck with me. She said, “I had to write ‘thank you,’ or ‘that's great’ instead of adding a reaction emoji under a Slack message. And I like to believe that those words carried more value than one more thumbs up added to the pile.”
So to me, at the end of the day, emojis are symbols. But they can't replace words and they definitely shouldn't be the only way to express our ideas, or the emotions that you want to communicate. And we need to remember that, like, words can be really, really powerful.
Christine: Maren, I love that story. I think it’s true that sometimes we can use emojis as a crutch rather than saying what we actually mean.
And today’s debate in general has reminded me that emojis are still relatively new. You know, they may feel super normalized to me or to all of us in here, but there are definitely still some kinks to work out.
But this conversation has also made me see that we can find ways to use emojis more inclusively ,and as tools that add to our communication. And so I’m looking forward to a future with more emojis at work and more intentionality in how we communicate – I don’t think we have to give them up. So for that reason, I’m declaring Shannon the winner of today’s debate!
Maren: Honestly, I think we all won since we, uh, we like emojis, so…
Shannon: I agree. We all like emojis and also I think we all are now gonna think more deeply about the implications of them and, and the usage of them.
Maren: Yeah, I'm glad we don't have to give them up, I'm not gonna lie.
Christine: For anyone out there that wants to dig into the details of this episode, you can see the transcript and other relevant perspectives on work life at atlassian.com/blog. And until next time, I'm Christine Dela Rosa, and this is Work Check, an original podcast from Atlassian.