I’ll admit I was late to the emoji party. For years now, people have been texting me thumbs up, fire bursts, and the occasional unicorn. But I held out, responding with plain old text. Then one day I finally decided to dive into my emoji keyboard.
That’s when I discovered the incredible communicative power of something as simple as a high-five icon. One tiny drawing. A whole world of emotion and context.
Even more surprising, this realization didn’t come in my personal communications. It came at work, where the majority of our young, gen-Z workforce is rapidly moving beyond using text as their primary mode of communication.
For those, like myself, who came of age in the era of email, it might be easy to assume that text is and will always be king. After all, emojis, GIFs, and Instagram-style selfie videos don’t have the usual gravitas we assign to workplace communications. Opinions are still split as to whether they’re acceptable in a business environment at all. But the proliferation of powerful (and emoji-friendly) workplace communication platforms like Slack suggest the debate is over.
The reality is that, as these modes of visual communication become more common, they represent the future of workplace communications. And that might not a bad thing.
Mobile: the gateway to the post-text era
We can thank gen-Z, and the breakneck evolution of mobile technology, for much of this change. The generation that grew up with smartphones (and HD cameras) in their pockets has never known anything other than an instantly connected world primed for short bursts of visual communications. Why describe a scene in words when you can make a Snapchat Story with video and pics instead?
According to them, even email is an outmoded method of communication reserved for school assignments and not much else. My youngest employees treat email the way that I looked at the fax machine when I got my first real job: a relic from a bygone era, and an absolute last resort if efficient communication is the goal.
The array of non-text options at their fingertips—from emojis and GIFs to photos, Boomerangs, and self-made videos—has fundamentally altered the way they communicate and expect to be communicated with. In fact, studies show that, although gen-Z and millennials spend similar amounts of time on social media, the younger generation favors platforms that prioritize visuals. Their use of sites like Snapchat, Instagram, and YouTube outpaces time spent on more text-based platforms like Facebook.
And it’s not only the medium but the tone of the message that’s changed. Compared to boomers and their poker-faced business tone, gen-Z are emotional communicators. They use the full gamut of communication tools at their disposal to attach meaning and personal context to their thoughts and ideas. Gone are dry emails, replaced by Instagram Stories overlaid with quotes, stickers, and running commentary. Importantly, this isn’t just in their personal lives but in their professional lives, as well.
And far from being inappropriate in the workplace, this can actually be a serious advantage.
For us, embracing this shift has led to some important innovations. One of our gen-Z hires, frustrated with prospecting for new customers via email, helped us come up with GoVideo, a free email plug-in that makes it easy to create video messages for business communications. It’s now one of our most profitable product lines.
Why less text can increase clarity
Contrary to popular belief, using fewer words can actually increase understanding—and profitability. One study found that incorporating visual tools like video, screenshots, GIFs, and emojis in business operations amounted to $167 billion in saved time, reduced misinterpretation, and increased profitability.
I’ve certainly seen this in my own company. I used to send out a monthly progress report to our entire organization updating everyone on our performance, upcoming projects, and profitability. Try as I might to make it short and engaging, it inevitably ended up being a wall of text and numbers. Once, after I’d sent it out, I caught wind of a rumour circulating in the office: Apparently the company was running out of money. It was news to me—and also completely untrue, the result of someone misinterpreting my email, and passing that on to others who had probably only skimmed it, at best.
That’s the thing with relying on text. People have to read it, and carefully at that. Even if you can convince someone to skim to the bottom of your 1,000-word update—increasingly difficult to do in our world of shrinking attention spans—the risk of misinterpretation is incredibly high.
So I now do my updates via video. Not only is there more uptake from my team, who can casually open and watch while they take a break or answer their Slack messages, there’s much less room for misinterpretation. I can say exactly what I mean, in my own words, and my demeanour, tone, and body language add layers of context that’s almost impossible to include via text. I’m delivering vital information in a way that’s verifiably easier for the majority of my team to digest.
Overall, leaning more on visual communications has also been a big time saver in my daily communications. As the CEO, I get pinged all the time by people looking for go-aheads or final sign-offs. One thumbs-up emoji, and that part of my work as a leader is done.
Adapting to the new paradigm requires support
Of course, just like the generation before me had a steep learning curve when it came to email, not everyone today is versed in the visual values of gen-Z. To survive and thrive, there needs to be some intergenerational education.
This works both ways. I sit down with my young hires to walk them through the ins and outs of email etiquette. (It’s not totally dead yet, after all.) But I’ve also had to clarify the nuances of texting and emojis with older colleagues. One board member explicitly told me I’m the only person who texts him. Initially, our rapid-fire back and forths led to more confusion than clarity.
For employers and team leaders, the key right now comes down to keeping an open mind and developing fluency across platforms. The communication landscape is shifting fast. Email has its holdouts, while a new generation is image-first and often image-only. Rejecting any one platform as either outdated or frivolous risks alienating a big part of your workforce—and a big part of your customer base, too.