Can Emoji Help Improve Workplace Engagement?

The popularity of emoji is widespread, with 92% of the online population using these characters in daily conversation. Businesses are catching on and have begun to incorporate emoji into their marketing efforts to better reach their audience. In fact, Appboy’s analytics shows that the number of emoji used in social campaigns has increased 777% year-over-year from 2015 to 2016.


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While marketers were early adopters and have used emoji to increase reach to customers and influencers and improve engagement on content, HR professionals are now learning how to leverage emoji in their work. After all, emoji are often used to express how people are feeling or their reaction to something they see or read. In fact, you probably sent one during a recent conversation over text or e-mail!

Capturing Employee Sentiment with Emoji

Annual engagement surveys often posed a challenge to obtaining the truth about employee sentiment. Deloitte’s 2014 Global Human Capital Trends research signaled the need to “redefine engagement beyond an ‘annual HR measure’ to a continuous, holistic part of an entire business strategy.” To do this, organizations must be prepared to take the good and the bad because, as we know, some days are better than others. And with that, comes the responsibility to help employees feel comfortable sharing their true feelings about work, day in and day out. This endeavor itself is no easy task.

A recent report by Plasticity Labs showed that only 72% of people surveyed said that they are being their authentic selves at work. This can be detrimental to employees and employers. For instance, employees may not feel like they can really express how they feel out of fear that they’ll be judged or have their reputation or career progress hurt in the process.

From the organization’s perspective, if people don’t feel comfortable in being their true selves on a day-to-day basis, how good is the data that comes from annual engagement surveys? More importantly, how much talent potential is being left on the table?

You may be thinking, “How can business leaders obtain more truthful sentiment from their employees on a more regular basis?” And, “Are emoji the answer?”

The Science Behind a Smiley Face

Scientists have discovered that when looking at a face online, very specific parts of the brain are activated as if looking at a real human face. Emoji are essentially conveying what facial expressions, hand gestures, and tone of voice do for in-person conversations. In addition, clicking on an emoji frees up the employee to communicate their true feelings—without words—which is also a powerful form of communication.

For example, a major retailer built its own real-time system to track the morale of each employee. After each day, employees were asked how they felt and were given the choice of tapping whichever emoji reflected their state of mind in that moment.

Through this process, a unique trend was uncovered. It didn’t matter which emoji the employees selected, but rather whether they chose one at all. The business found that if a store had a significant decline in the number of emoji selected, they would predictably face an attrition problem 30 to 60 days later.

I believe the lesson here is about understanding behavior. The activity or inactivity in one department or one specific location of a business helps HR shift its attention to look into the reasons why people are feeling the way they are or acting in a certain manner. It can be good news or it could be bad, but either way, the follow up action is what counts the most towards improving how people experience, and feel, about work.

Thumbs Up Or Down?

Bersin by Deloitte’s 2017 Global Human Capital Trends report notes that leading organizations are looking at the overall employee experience in its entirety, rather than focusing strictly on engagement. The ‘employee experience’ takes into account all of the factors that contribute to employee satisfaction, engagement, and overall wellbeing—factors that all contribute to the effectiveness of any talent strategy and the impact it has on business results.

The truth is, allowing employees to tell you how they’re feeling about work or their colleagues by using smiley faces won’t solve employee problems like workplace engagement alone. The best way to move the needle on engagement is for employees to use whatever system is in place on a regular basis and then for HR, and leaders from across the organization, to do something with the data collected. If that happens, my feeling is that more organizations will see a positive change in the behavior of its people to accompany those smiley faces—online and in person—more often.

Lisa Mullen is the Global HR Operations Manager at Saba Software. She has over 15 years’ experience working in HR across various industries and specializes in employee relations, training and development, and recruitment.