Emojis in the workplace are here to stay. Thanks in part to messaging apps like Slack, those tiny, expressive icons have become perfectly acceptable responses to colleagues. 

At one company, emojis aren't just acceptable communication, they've become absolutely critical to its day-to-day operations.

Founded in 2013, Flexport is a San Francisco-based startup that develops logistics software to make freight shipping more efficient. The company provides shipping services via air, ocean, rail, and truck for more than 10,000 clients. The company went through the startup accelerator program Y Combinator in 2014, where president Paul Graham described it as "one of the small handful of startups that are going to change the world," according to TechCrunch. Flexport pulled in $225 million in revenue last year and ranked No. 8 on Inc.'s 2018 list of the fastest-growing private companies.

Before Flexport could start chartering cargo by plane in April, however, the air freight team had to figure out a more efficient way to actually pack the cargo into planes. For Flexport's warehouse workers, the process of consolidating the cargo and mapping out where to put the boxes was long and arduous. 

Logistics has a lot of moving parts. As Flexport product designer Zoe Padgett puts it, the workers "who receive the cargo in the warehouse are turning the boxes from physical into digital forms." There's someone who inputs the weight and dimensions of the box into the system, another person who uses the data to digitally map out the cargo on the plane, and a third person who uses that information to know where to load the cargo.

The challenge was how to more efficiently put all this data into the system so workers can get to planning out where to place cargo faster.

Padgett and her product manager started brainstorming. They knew that using a string of numbers complicates the process--it takes time to enter figures into the system and it's easy to accidentally transpose numbers. They also needed to find something that would overcome language barriers and that would be easy to scale.

They eventually hit upon a very simple tool that neatly solved all of those problems: emojis. If they could use a picture to visually represent each piece of cargo, getting the shipment's details into the system could be faster and easier. Emojis are device-agnostic and, being a universal language, they would make communication among the warehouse workers in Hong Kong easier.  

"People underestimate [emojis]," says Padgett. "They're really playful and wonderful, and they can also have really big-scale business uses."


 "A donut means the same thing as it does in Hong Kong," she adds, which is particularly important given the makeup of Flexport's team: English-speaking employees in its headquarters in the U.S. and a warehouse team with both Chinese-speaking workers and migrants from Pakistan.

Since May, the warehouse workers have been using 130 emojis--including a hot dog, a high heel, and a donut--to uniquely identify each piece of cargo that comes in. The team randomly assigns the images to the cargo. One lesson they learned early on was to keep face emojis out of the mix: The label printers in the warehouses couldn't print high-enough-quality images. So now they only choose emojis that are easily recognizable from their silhouette.

In the future, Padgett says, Flexport may consider taking the emoji system one step further and developing unique images to identify what's in the boxes. (Currently, a hot dog emoji doesn't mean a box is full of hot dogs.) She says it could be a fun product feature for clients. 

"They're a system of classification already--it's just formalizing on that and capitalizing what people already do and capitalizing on what people are comfortable with," she says.

Published on: Aug 30, 2018