Without ‘watercooler’ chats, companies facilitate natural conversation

The Yomiuri Shimbun
“Chats start naturally in front of the vending machine,” said Taro Mizoguchi, foreground.

A decline in face-to-face conversations due to the coronavirus pandemic has made people rediscover the importance of everyday chats.

At first, companies were consciously setting up dedicated times to promote these interactions, but recently attempts are being made to encourage chats to start more naturally. This area is receiving more and more attention.

En Japan Inc., a major human resources service company based in Tokyo, allows employees working remotely to chat any time they want in a virtual online office.

All employees have to do is place their personal icon in the virtual office on their computer screen and turn on their microphone to be able to listen to or talk with other colleagues whose icons are nearby.

Icons can be marked green or red to signify an openness to chat or a desire to focus on work.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Romi is a robot that is good at chatting.

“I’ve been working from home ever since joining the company, but by making it easy to talk to my bosses and senior colleagues, it’s made conversations about work easier too,” said an employee who has been with the company for two years.

The company started remote work in April last year, but they found that communication between employees became more difficult.

Some departments set up dedicated chat times using a web conferencing system in the mornings and evenings, but those sessions were limited and people then felt uncomfortable chatting in other online meetings, so in November that year they set up the virtual office.

“We felt that chatting needed an environment where people could have constant, loose connections,” said Akinori Imamura, who is in charge of the matter at the company.

Few rules

While companies have introduced dedicated times for chatting during the pandemic, in some cases this has been counterproductive for reasons such as people finding it unpleasant.

Kaoru Fujii, a human resources expert at Recruit Co., said: “Chatting is supposed to be something that happens when you want it to. Companies are making progress in responding to those needs.”

Hiroshi Nakagawa, director of Hakuhodo behavioral design research institute, said, “Companies are exploring ways to make it a creative time for employees to chat without feeling any pressure.”

In June, some departments at Tokyo-based NN Life Insurance Co. created times when the web conferencing system is left on. It is 30 minutes per week, but participation is voluntary and there are few rules.

“People are less likely to feel lonely because there’s at least some time for making connections,” the person in charge said.

Keep the rally going

Initiatives aimed at in-office time are also progressing.

Tokyo-based Kokuyo Co., a major stationery firm, has introduced something called the “president’s treat vending machine” on a trial basis at its Shinagawa office. If two employees show their IDs together, they get a free beverage each. The idea is supposed to encourage conversation.

The machine was developed by Tokyo-based Suntory Beverage & Food Ltd.

Taro Mizoguchi, 33, said he makes sure to use it every time he goes to the Shinagawa office.

“We just go together and a rambling conversation kicks off. I guess because it’s free, it’s easy to invite people,” he said.

The service is popular with employees and is used an average of 1,000 times per month.

A Kokuyo public relations official said the company hopes that “conversations with no particular goal will help ideas about work float to the surface.”

However, it is not systems that make chatting fun.

Tatsunari Iota, a psychological counselor who has written books such as “Cho Hanashi-kata Zukan” (Super-conversation illustrated guide), published by Asuka Shinsha, said: “Things get difficult because people want to tell interesting stories. Conversation is all about keeping the rally going.”

What is effective is not talking about the weather or some current event, but the sharing of emotions about familiar experiences.

“At first it might be awkward, but as you talk, you can get to know the other person. Don’t be afraid of silence,” he said.

Robot partners

Robots are gaining popularity as partners for chatting at home. Apparently, even people who do not live alone buy them.

Tokyo-based Mixi Inc., a major tech company, launched an autonomous conversation robot called Romi in April.

Using artificial intelligence technology developed by the company, the robot is marketed as a good conversationalist that is able to bandy words about naturally.

“I tell Romi stories with no point or talk about things I can’t discuss with my family, like complaints about work,” one customer was quoted as saying.

The Takashimaya Shinjuku department store in Tokyo currently sells about 10 varieties of communication robots.

Sales have been soaring, up about nine-fold from March to October compared to the same period in 2019 before the pandemic.

Most customers before the pandemic were elderly women, but recently more have been women in their 30s and 40s.

Hirotoshi Tadokoro, a buyer for the department store, said, “With the sustained period we’ve had when it’s hard to have conversations with people, robots seem to satisfy the desire to talk and be listened to.”