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An emoji 😃 is worth a thousand words — and it makes work more pleasant and productive

Five billion emojis were sent every day in 2020 on a handful of social networks, and that number will only grow. Decades into a rise in popularity, the word itself can still sound frivolous.

But emoji hold tremendous value, especially in today’s distributed workforce — in efficiency, expression, meaning and connection — and it isn’t just a passing trend.

Emoji is a Japanese term meaning “picture character”, and its history can be traced back to the late 1800s when an American humour magazine used typographical characters to convey a range of emotions. Over a century removed from their humble beginnings, emojis have evolved beyond light relief, becoming a key part of the way we communicate socially. But its applications in professional communication are even more compelling, especially as we move beyond the archaic 9-to-5, office-based, top-down attendance model to a more distributed, remote, productive, metric-based way of measuring productivity. 

With the rise of the digital HQ and almost 80 per cent of employees favouring flexibility in where they work, the connection has never been more important. We know that channel-based messaging is less siloed than email, but it provides deeper connection and is more efficient, effective, transparent, scalable, secure, and integrated. It’s the hub of digital HQs worldwide, with as many as 300,000 Slack messages sent every second. Emoji can help convey reactions to these messages by carrying a range of emotions — much more efficiently and often more effective than a formal response, where words can sometimes fail and take too much time. Furthermore, a new generation of employees has grown up with emojis as part of their communication portfolio. The emerging minds you want to welcome into your company have grown up fluent in emojis. 

At Slack, more than 50 million custom emojis have been created by individual companies. This number is growing — with this growth comes the need for etiquette guidelines and suggested use cases. The most common way emoji can be used to drive efficiency is through reactions — or “reacjis”. In Australia, the number of reactions made on Slack has increased by 61% over the last year. They can be posted to any message and provide more efficient workflows, reducing the need for time-consuming back-and-forths, showing: 

  • You’re taking a look at something with the ‘eyes’ emoji
  • A task has been completed with a ‘tick’ emoji 
  • Yes or no with a thumbs up or a thumbs down 
  • To select a preference from a list, for example, by using a number ‘one’ emoji when choosing from options for a preferred meeting time 

Emoji also play an important role in showing status when using Slack — when someone is on a lunch break, commuting, slow to respond etc. They can increase the “psychological safety” of the workplace, enabling everyone to work in a more trusted environment. 

At global online design platform Canva, which has been using Slack since 2016, emoji helps its people – nicknamed ‘Canvanauts’ and distributed across Australia, the Philippines, China and the United States – make channel-based messaging more expressive and productive. Ranked as one of Australia’s best places to work, Canva uses Slack to bring its supportive, diverse and unapologetically quirky company culture to life. Adding an emoji reaction to a message posted by a colleague not only provides an immediate way for Canvanauts to indicate who’s doing what but also allows them to give all-important kudos to colleagues exhibiting the company’s core values, such as ‘Make complex things simple’.   

Language and human communication are always evolving. Just as the tools we use to connect are transforming, so must how we communicate within them. Adopting emojis in the workplace helps make work more fun, enjoyable, efficient and especially human. With the right guardrails, they can impact company culture by promoting positive feedback and engagement in a way that words often can’t. Personalities can shine in a way that can be very difficult for some people or more challenging across physical divides.

It’s often underestimated and perhaps easily dismissed, but we’ve seen that it’s part of a more fundamental move toward a happier, more engaging world of work. Emoji are over a century old, but they’re an essential part of the future of work.

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Cal Henderson

Cal Henderson

Cal Henderson is the co-founder and CTO of Slack. He oversees Slack’s world-class engineering team and sets the technical vision for the company. In 2019, he was named a Fortune 40 Under 40 honouree and was recognised by the World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader. Previously, Cal built and led the engineering teams at Flickr, through its acquisition by Yahoo!. An experienced technology leader and a popular speaker on engineering scalability, he authored the best-selling O’Reilly Media book Building Scalable Websites. Cal was also a pioneer in the use of web APIs and created the basis for OAuth and oEmbed, now used by YouTube, Twitter and many others. Cal was involved in London’s early online network through his work with digital creative communities and the blogosphere. He has a BSc in Computer Science and has received an Honorary Doctorate from Birmingham City University. He now resides in San Francisco.

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