Why Emoticons are essential to your employee engagement survey

I was late.

@#^*$* traffic!

The SMS I sent my team went something like this.


I was irritated and embarrassed and hoped to get some sympathy. The emoticons helped.

The Changing Face of Communication

The Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year for 2015 was not a word. It was in fact the ‘tears of joy’ emoticon. This is an acknowledgement of how communication patterns have shifted over the years.

Emoticons first made their appearance in September 1982 when Professor Scott Fahlmon suggested to the Carnegie Mellon University that the ASCII symbols 🙂 and 🙁 be used to distinguish jokes from serious statements on their online message board. Over the years, as the smartphone industry grew, so did the popularity of emoticons, till it has become what it is today, the de facto way to communicate emotions across all electronic communication platforms. There’s even an emoticon dictionary, and an emoticon Bible on the internet today.

The word ‘emoticon’ is a combination of the words ‘emotion’ and ‘icon’, and refers to a graphic representation of facial expressions that maybe produced by ASCII symbols, such as 🙂 , or by ‘pictograms’, such as . Though emojis are different from emoticons, most people use the terms interchangeably.

What started as a typographical representation of facial expressions has exploded into a new form of communication that includes pictures of nails being polished or a dancing lady in red or even brand-specific emojis. There are even experiments conducted where people have attempted, rather successfully, to get through a whole day using only emojis to communicate when texting.

According to Swyft Media, the two billion smartphone users in the world today send out approximately six billion emoticons and emojis each day.  Linguistics the world over are heralding this new phase of language development. We’ve truly embraced emoticons as a way to communicate.


Emoticons at Work

Emoticons were initially considered the ‘language of the young’. But that has changed over the years and it is now a universally understood language across all age groups.

Corporates have had a love-hate relationship with emoticons. A few years ago, emails containing emoticons were considered inappropriate, too casual and the person sending it, unprofessional. Yet the convenience of using them prevailed and today they are commonly visible in the otherwise un-ostentatious ‘corporatese’.

In the paper, The Communicative Functions of Emoticons in Workplace E-Mails: 🙂, the authors argue that “emoticons in authentic workplace e-mails do not primarily indicate writers’ emotions. Rather, they provide information about how an utterance is supposed to be interpreted. We show that emoticons function as contextualization cues, which serve to organize interpersonal relations in written interaction. They serve 3 communicative functions. First, when following signatures, emoticons function as markers of a positive attitude. Second, when following utterances that are intended to be interpreted as humorous, they are joke/irony markers. Third, they are hedges: when following expressive speech acts (such as thanks, greetings, etc.) they function as strengtheners and when following directives (such as requests, corrections, etc.) they function as softeners.” Its popularity can be attributed to the fact that it easily conveys emotions and meaning that would otherwise be lost or would need several words to communicate.

When HR speaks in emoticons

In corporate circles, the early adopters were marketing folk as they sought to match brand voice with consumer communication. Today, however, emoticons have made their way into the workspace, peppering formal internal communications with glimpses of quirky ‘humanness’. The HR community has embraced emoticons in all forms of communications to employees – from internal newsletters to induction kits – each piece of communication has been elevated with a more personal and engaging tone of voice.

But perhaps the area that can benefit the most from the change in tone is the tedious employee survey. Measuring engagement is a long drawn out process, a painful affair for the time-strapped employee and employer. Traditional annual surveys require the already-reluctant employee to spend a minumim of an hour to respond to 80 questions. And we’re expecting them to give us honest, authentic feedback?

Which is why at nFactorial Analytics we encourage organizations to replace or supplement their annual surveys with insightful continuous engagement conversations. One of the features of our continuous engagement platform, nGage, is that the response to every question can be in the form of emoticons. In fact, we encourage it.

Continuous employee feedback and mood
Employee Engagement through continuous feedback

We’ve adopted this approach for a very specific reason. Here’s why.

Unlike the traditional Likert Scale approach that most annual surveys utlize, nGage uses System 1 of Daniel Kahneman’s two-system response and decision-making processes.

Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel prize winner, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, outlines two distinct ways that human beings make decisions. System 1 is our voluntary, innate responses that are effortless and don’t require us to think about them. It is our instinctual and immediate responses to situations. For e.g. wincing when we hear a loud sound or detecting hostility in a voice that sounds angry. System 2 is our more conscious thoughts and reasoning self. For e.g. if someone was to say to us 82 X 206. We know instinctually that it is requires multiplication and we will be able to work out the answer if we had paper and pen or even mentally with a little time. That reponse requires cognitive thought and some effort.

According to Kahneman, System 1 is our gut reaction to a situation. It is our honest opinion, the naked truth. Which is why we’ve found that when we use emoticons, employees give us more accurate and truthful responses. Emoticons are instinctual. They’re a reflection of our emotions, of the way we feel. In addition the internet is a colourful place and there are several studies that show that people respond better to images than they do to plain text.

Companies rarely benefit when employees provide practiced, rational, logical responses to questions that are meant to elicit honest feedback. Most CHROs want to connect with the emotional side of an employee – that’s where the desire for discretionary effort resides. That’s the source that must be tapped.

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