Employees don’t check their emotions at the office door — or Zoom room. But it can be harder to read how your team is feeling when you’re working remotely or in a hybrid office. Managers can use emojis as a fun and easy way to connect with their team. They can offer deeper insight on how your team is feeling, help you build your own cognitive empathy, help you model appropriate emotions, and help reinforce your company culture. Emoji usage can be an intergenerational and cultural minefield, however, so if you are new to the practice, the authors suggest starting with simple emojis (for example, a thumbs up) rather than those that represent complex emotions.
Leaders have often relied on physical cues, such as facial expressions and body language, to gauge and communicate emotions or intent. But doing so is more difficult in the remote workplace, where facial expressions and physical gestures are difficult to both read and convey.
Anecdotal evidence, as well as conversations we’ve had as part of our ongoing research into effective leadership in the digital age, is pointing to the growing use of emojis in the virtual workplace as an alternative to physical cues. They can help clarify meaning behind digital communications, as well as the type and strength of emotions being expressed. But they can also be an intergenerational and cultural minefield. For example, Gen Z’s are reportedly offended by their colleagues’ use of the smiley face emoji, which they see as patronizing. And cultural and geographical differences can mean that one person’s friendly gesture is another’s offense.
To lead in the remote or hybrid workplace, managers need to be aware of these pitfalls and need to understand how to use emojis effectively.
Using Emojis to Connect with Your Team
Based on recent research on emoji use in the workplace, our interviews with leaders who self-identified as using emojis for team management, as well as our own research into effective leadership, we identified four ways using emoji can help you connect with employees and enhance your leadership in a hybrid or remote environment.
1. Get deeper insight on how your team is feeling.
When employees at Danske Bank A/S, a Danish banking and financial services company, log on to join their remote management meetings, they share an emoji. “Our virtual meetings start with capturing the mood of the day. We each post a sticker with our name and an emoji that represents how we feel,” explains Eduardo Morales, a Danske Bank product owner. As these meetings usually are attended by more than 40 people, emoji sharing allows attendees to get a sense of each other’s moods, as well as the collective mood of the group, with just a single glance at the screen. “It saves time, and yet our interactions are richer,” Morales says. “Emojis allows us to reflect upon and express a broader range of feelings beyond the standard verbal response of ‘I’m fine.’”
The simple task of emoji selection gives team members a moment for self-reflection, which has been found to positively impact performance. And those with higher self-awareness become more thoughtful in expressing their emotions, which results in a better accuracy of emoji selection to represent their given mood.
2. Build your own cognitive empathy.
Your employees’ emotions are a data point that can help you understand what motivates them and how they experience their work.
“How do I as a leader understand what my team is working on and how they’re feeling about their work when everybody is remote?” asks Luke Thomas, founder of software startup Friday.app. He decided to start using emojis as part of his weekly check-ins. He asks direct reports to select an emoji to indicate how their week went, and then follows up with open-ended questions, such as: What went well this week? What was the worst part of the week? Is there anything I can help with?
Thomas explains that these updates allow him to have richer one-on-one discussions and then act on his employees’ needs. “I spend less time doing status updates and check-ins, and more time engaged in building better relationships, removing blockers and coaching,” he says.
3. Model appropriate emotions.
Emotions are contagious, and research suggests they may be even more amplified in the digital space. Managing your team’s emotional state and mood is a critical element of leadership, and emojis can help leaders express and role model emotional cues suitable for certain situations.
One senior leader at a global consumer products company explained that he uses emojis and GIFs to help motivate his team members and colleagues: “I use them as “pick-me-ups” to energize and to drive positive moods and behaviors within my team.” He described a recent example of how he used a humorous GIF and emoji to bring a moment of levity to a challenging financial discussion that was taking place on an online chat. The digital cue served as a transition, enabling the discussion to be steered towards a more positive orientation.
Leaders can greatly influence an organization’s emotional culture. Using emojis that represent positive workplace emotions, such as happiness, pride, enthusiasm, and optimism, is a first step for leaders looking to effectively role-model digital cues.
4. Reinforce your company’s culture.
Organizations have emotional cultures that can impact everything from employee satisfaction to burnout to financial performance. Emojis can both reflect and enhance the emotional culture of your organization in your daily communications.
“Our corporate culture is very fun and friendly — we hug a lot,” shares a manager at a global home furnishings retailer. After moving to remote work, managers at the company had to find a new way to express this aspect of their culture. “We can’t close a single department meeting without sending emojis and GIFs. A lot of them,” one told us. If the emotional culture is ebullient, as was true for the one described above, emojis can be used liberally and without necessarily having the leader set the norm.
In other workplace cultures, leaders use emojis to reinforce their organization’s core values. Take the example of material science company, DuPont. “We like to show appreciation and recognition for each other, so I often use the applause emoji to recognize people’s accomplishments,” explains Lori Gettelfinger, a DuPont global brand leader.
Take the time to gauge your organization’s emotional culture, which may be codified in mission statements, values, and daily behaviors. Then think about digital gestures, such as emojis, that can help reinforce it.
Minimizing Opportunities for Offense
If you are new or hesitant to using emojis in the workplace, we advise starting with simple emojis (e.g., thumbs up) rather than emojis that represent complex emotions (e.g. laughing emojis with tears) in order to decrease the likelihood that an emoji will offend.
Offense usually stems from a misinterpretation of a sent emoji or when someone uses an emoji that they think means one thing but really means another. For example, if a manager sends the emoji that features two hands pressed together, does it send a message of gratitude? A request for a favor? Or is it hands clasped in prayer? And is the emoji with the smiling face and two hands signaling a friendly wave “hello” or giving a hug? If you’re not sure, better to avoid using the emoji and to stick with something that is more straightforward and less open to interpretation.
Employees don’t check their emotions at the office door — or Zoom room. And when you’re leading in a virtual space, it can be harder to read how your team is feeling. Using emojis can help managers connect with their employees and strengthen their organization’s emotional culture.
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