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So how's your cat? Panasonic orders chats to fight telework blues

Quick mandatory two-minute small talk boosts morale and productivity

Brief chats with co-workers while teleworking has led to faster decision-making at Panasonic. (Photo courtesy of Panasonic)

TOKYO -- Going weeks without seeing co-workers as one toils away anonymously in front of a screen leads to not only a heightened sense of isolation for the individual but also can do serious damage to company morale.

To cure these telework blues, Panasonic has devised a simple rule: Employees must spend the first two minutes of every online meeting catching up on each other's lives.

Participants in meetings are strongly encouraged to turn on their cameras during these chats. "Being able to see each other creates a sense of security, and encourages people to speak up even during the actual meeting," said one worker.

The two-minute rule was first adopted by about 150 members of the mobile solutions business in February, when the coronavirus outbreak was becoming a major concern in Japan. The division is responsible for selling computers and other devices to corporate clients.

When working from home became the new normal a month later in March, online meetings were shortened to 45 minutes from the usual hour. The extra 15 minutes were left open, so workers could use the time to catch up with the lives of colleagues and supervisors or prepare for upcoming meetings.

These changes came in response to complaints by younger employees, who felt telework kept them from keeping in touch with colleagues. Better communication has led to quicker decision-making, allowing workers to complete tasks that used to take three days in two days or less.

The entire mobile solutions business began following the two-minute rule this month. Other divisions are looking into the option as well.

Other companies are promoting communication via online chat rooms. Hikky, a Tokyo-based organizer of virtual reality events, launched a chat room dedicated to small talk -- like what each employees are doing at the moment. Of course, employees are allowed to opt out if they want to focus on their work.

"Daily communication leads to better content," said Hikky CEO Yasushi Funakoshi. "Our employees usually do talk to each other a lot, and many of our ideas came from casual chats."

Communication is one of the biggest challenges to making telework more common in Japan. In a June survey by the Cabinet Office, 44% of respondents said there needed to be improvements in how meetings and decisions are handled while working remotely, while 28% called for better communication on the progress of individual projects.

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