When we think of the bands of communication that help facilitate our incidents (text chat, phone bridges, video calls), we tend to discount smaller cues, the in-between that colors and adds depth. It may be on those video calls the notable pause when considering a problem, the tone of voice that indicates the subtle difference between a joke to lighten the mood or snapping at someone when tensions run high. I'd like to consider one often discounted - emojis and reacjis.
While true that it may often be used for fun, overlooking its uses elsewhere as another tool in the variety we have to coordinate is missing out on another means of understanding how teams coordinate. It may not be the primary means by which understanding is transferred among members of a team, but teams are making use of them in their day to day work along with mission critical situations, making them deserving of introspection.
When emoji work better than text
There's a memetic idea behind emojis, its influence upon culture and its use, that has a strong feedback loop. Some have universal understanding, a thumbs up indicating agreement for example, while others (particularly custom emoji) develop within smaller communities. Information is distilled and reused, quickly conveyed to achieve knowledge transfer. Applying this to an incident, the need for this shared interpretation of ideas is powerful. Sometimes you want to say little but get a point across.
Is "yes" so hard to type? Likely not, but the nuances between "yup", "sure", and "uh huh" while all indicative of assent can add depth in similar ways despite little difference in character count. Perhaps you're feeling under pressure and would prefer not to overthink how to communicate agreement, which itself can lead to a vicious cycle of indecision. Should someone already react to a message, it's pretty simple to click once more, adding to the chorus of support for an idea, likewise making it simple to assess how widespread agreement may be. Simplifying the cognitive overhead of decision making in an incident can be a large cost savings, both in time and mental energy.
Using emoji can be a form of bonding as well, which is critical for common ground understanding for teams within an incident and beyond. At Xero, Pirmin Schuermann had this to say:
"There's a notable usage of emoji - as a means of adding credence to arguments and show affiliation for topics surrounding Resilience Engineering. Creating emoji of notable figures in the field, they might drop a quote and put a face to it, or react to a message with a face to better associate ideas surrounding a concept."
Within an ongoing incident and afterwards, keying off of emojis can be incredibly useful. Searching through a stack of messages? Reacji have been used in incidents as an indexing mechanism. Teams attach reacji to messages as a means of bookmarking for a quick visual scan, indicating management flow and highlighting for others to follow along. It's challenging enough parsing data for concepts when you're trying to get time sensitive information shared quickly. Likewise after the fact, when you're connecting the threads in an analysis of an incident, keeping a set of reacji for specific notes (a lightbulb for an "a-ha!" moment, for example) can be incredibly useful, as opposed to trying to search via textual keywords, when you may have an understanding of what was said without the exact wording.
What are the tradeoffs?
Nothing is free in life, including coordination. Time and energy spent in responding and analyzing incidents isn't infinite, which leads to folks applying trade offs in where they focus. Reacjis can be seen as an adaptive response to these needs, an attempt to express more information in smaller bandwidths to shift resources elsewhere. They are not without cost either, though, which requires thoughtfulness when applying their use and understanding them.
Dr. Laura Maguire had this to say:
"For someone to know what information is relevant to another, at what point in time, particularly in multi-threaded and time pressured activity with multiple competing demands is effortful yet invisible. This cognitive work intimates a deep knowledge of the task being undertaken, of the expected flow of events and of anticipation that the information being provided may be lacking in the other person. Contrary to this being “without spending effort” the person providing the relevant information incurs a cost in doing so."
Even emojis are not without cost. Think about the following when reviewing your incidents:
- Is shared understanding achieved? My use of an emoji may differ slightly from how you're interpreting it, unless there's been extending experience to give confidence otherwise.
- What does it take to get folks to agree to this? We have a document of common expressions and reacji passed along during onboarding at Jeli, explicitly paying the cost to prime folks.
- How/when do you determine you're in need of regaining shared understanding? As with all coordination, the dynamic nature of that organization is constantly changing. This may be exposed during your analyses, but that requires focus on confirming understanding is shared.
- Is comprehension of terms temporary? Ideas can depreciate quickly, making it harder to reference later or complex concepts lost in the process.
- How far does the shared understanding extend? A team, or particular teammates, that communicate regularly and have a cadence of revisiting ideas may share understanding more evidently than those who don't, which can introduce uncertainty and drive up coordination costs during high tempo scenarios.
The Goal: shared understanding in a crisis
The subtlety of using reacjis and emojis in our chat means they're often given little attention. Like many forms of communication, they arise naturally and fluidly. Individuals may not even realize the patterns they build up with such until much later, often when things go awry. Implicit coordination, not being told how to agree on efforts but arising naturally, occur with reacji as well. It's critical then, that teams make continual efforts to establish common ground, as stated by Clark and Brennan in Grounding in Communication:
"In Communication, common ground cannot be accomplished without a process we shall call grounding"
As all forms of achieving understanding have a cost, the question for your teams is how you're expending resources to achieve it. Replying only in emoji custom to your team may leave others scratching their heads, but well placed supportive indications to your chats can add a depth to your communication forms to help surface quick knowledge in times of crisis and serve to produce artifacts for future experiential sharing in your analysis meetings.
Grounding in Communication, Clark and Brennan, 1991
Controlling the Costs of Coordination in Large-scale Distributed Software Systems, Maguire, 2020
Beyond the smile: how emoji use has evolved in the workplace
The ETTO Principle - Efficiency-Thoroughness Trade-Off
Thanks to Thai Wood and Dr. Laura Maguire for their thoughtful feedback in conversations to help inform this post.