Can emoji -- those cute icons that express an emotion or sentiment in digital communications -- enhance and enrich team-building and culture within companies?

On the surface, this question may sound absurd, especially because emoji are an integral part of most millenial lives.

But recent research shows that 76 percent of all Americans have used emoji in digital communications at work. And the reason, according to the research, may be that 81 percent of employees are struggling to express their feelings in the office through conventional digital messages, particularly when the messages might be seen as negative.

So, are emoji an effective way to close the emotional gap and boost performance, productivity, happiness and fulfillment in the workplace? That’s asking a lot of a simple digital symbol.

And yet, as Jim Patterson, co-founder and CEO of Cotap, the enterprise mobile messaging company that commissioned the research, says:

“To some people, emoji might seem frivolous and not meant for serious work communication, but [emoji] are actually a powerful way to express emotion and intonation in a text. Combined with creative use of punctuation, emoji serve the same function in text as body language does in conversation.”

The growing use of emoji in the workplace has also been stimulated and facilitated by the expanding popularity of office collaboration and communication tools like Slack, which encourage casual business interactions online and allow people to bring their “whole” selves to work.  

It’s more than connective emotional expression, however. Emoji usage within companies is now increasingly seen as a way to help drive business results.

David Geller, a start-up entrepreneur, investor and mentor who was founder and CEO of WhatCounts, an email marketing firm, believes that emoji can help inspire teams. “Emoji,” says Geller, “are a business lubricant. They say to teams, ‘let’s keep moving.’ “

Jason Preston, co-founder of Dent, which explores “visionary leadership and groundbreaking success,” agrees with Geller. “Serious work conversations need the right interplay,” explains Preston. “And, sometimes, you have to apply pressure, but keep it personable. Emoji help give people the space to adopt change in a business and go forward.”

For his part, Jack Vinson, a knowledge management consultant who has worked with a variety of companies, says that “if emoji can become part of the language of the organization, they can help create cohesion and possibly break down some of the barriers. But, just as much, they can get in the way if people don't universally ‘get’ them.” 

Renee Blodgett -- the founder of Magic Sauce Media (an image, marketing and social media consultancy focused on travel, wellness and technology brands) and We Blog the World (a lifestyle and travel site) -- has harnessed emoji in a much more pragmatic way. She collaborates with people from around the world, and the emoji that each person uses helps her understand where they’re coming from that much better.

“If their emoji is child-like or lacks creativity, I’ll lose attention pretty quickly,” says Blodgett, “but if their emoji is more compelling, it adds to my curiosity. It’s a bit like how women and men ‘scan’ each other when they walk into a room. I always look at a man’s shoes since it tells me so much about his personality and how he lives and thinks. I’m personally not a fan of shoes with tassels, and, just like we all have personal style preferences in real life, we have them online. They convey a lot to us and a particular style will help us identify whether someone is a potential for our tribe….or not.”

And speaking of women, females under 30 are the most frequent emoji users by far. Which helps explain why Google recently proposed adding female professions to the emoji portfolio in a bid to encourage gender equality and erase stereotypes. Following this proposal, Android 7.1 announced 16 new emoji depicting female professions -- including doctor, teacher, astronaut, pilot, firefighter, judge, farmer, mechanic, factory worker, software engineer and scientist.

Despite the growing interest in business use of emoji, there are still important digital boundaries that must be recognized and respected in the workplace --

  1. Don’t over-use emoji; you could end up irritating co-workers.
  2. Use words if you aren't 100 percent sure that using an emoji will get your point across.
  3. Know your audience. Be sure you understand your company’s corporate culture before using emoji. Including a thumbs-up icon or smiley face in an email to a customer or CEO might not always be the best idea.
  4. Know your emoji. There are hundreds of them, and you need to be sure you understand what the icon you’re using actually conveys, or there could be a serious and / or painful misunderstanding.

What do you think? Are you using emoji in the workplace to achieve better business results? I’d love to hear your story, so let me know.