Emojis at work: The good, the bad and ugly interpretations

The increasing use of emojis in the workplace communications is contributing to friendlier work environments, but there are also risks associated with substituting symbols for words, new research shows.

“People can interpret emojis in different ways and different groups often associate different meanings with different symbols, and this doesn’t always cross the generations,” said Miriam Meyerhoff, Linguistics professor at Victoria University Wellington.

“This can be a minefield in the workplace,” she said.

According to Meyerhoff, one example is the use of a wink face which could be either flirtatious or, for others, something friendly and light-hearted attached at the end of a work e-mail.

“The last thing we want is for people to feel uncomfortable or even harassed by a misunderstood emoji that was sent by a workmate in all innocence but received the wrong way,” Meyerhoff said.

A recent research conducted by 2degrees stated that half of those surveyed have used emojis in the wrong context at work, with 17 per cent getting into trouble for it.

The “Good Chat” Emoji Study, which surveyed more than 2,000 New Zealanders, showed that while for the most part of the workers’ intentions are good, they need to be aware of the generation gap at work as this could create awkward moments.

But, 2degrees said, while some may find the use of emojis at work awkward, the study showed the playful symbols are actually creating a friendlier atmosphere at the workplace.

According to the study, the use of emojis can change the way people view their colleagues and lead to better connections at work.

Nearly one in three, 29 per cent, said their perceptions of their workmates change if they use emojis. Majority, 59 per cent, of those surveyed warm to colleagues when they use emojis and think they are friendlier than expected.

“Language and communication norms are constantly changing and it’s clear that emojis have a part to play in this,” Meyerhoff said. “It’s interesting to see that young women are leading the way as the biggest users of emojis, which fits in with other studies that show they usually drive language change.”

When it comes to interacting with a worker’s peers, he or she is on fairly safe ground if he or she is using an emoji with a colleague aged between 16 and 24, with 94 per cent using them in everyday digital conversations.

For most people, of all ages, it depends how well they know their colleague before they hit send, but 40 per cent will e-mail or text one of the colourful images if they think a workmate could use a smile.

However, the study showed, it pays to think twice before sending a thumbs up to an older colleague as 42 per cent of those aged 55+ think it is unprofessional to use emojis at work.


The older crowd also think the boss is off-limits, with one in two people over the age of 45 saying it is inappropriate to send one to the person in charge.

But that’s not putting off the people at the top: 41 per cent of workers have received emojis from their boss or manager. This can pay dividends when it comes to building a strong culture, with one in four people feeling less intimidated by those in senior roles who send them a smiley face.

Scott Taylor, chief consumer officer 2degrees, believes there’s plenty of food for thought in the survey findings, including for some bosses who may be missing a trick on relating better to their staff.

“Relationships are built on good communication and the growth of technology is giving us new ways of talking, including through emojis. It’s not surprising that younger people, who have been brought up with a mobile phone in their hand, are comfortable using emojis, but the rest of us aren’t far behind with 70 per cent of Kiwis using them,” Taylor said.

“The key, as with all good conversation, is to know what is appropriate when it comes to the emojis you choose and who you send them to.”

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