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Japanese startups ease the loneliness of working from home

New services offer teamwork exercises and tools for fluid communication

TOKYO -- It's Friday evening, early June, and the employees of Uridoki, a dealer of secondhand items in Tokyo's Shibuya are having drinks together. At least they would be if the pandemic never hit. But COVID-19 is a reality, one that chased these workers out of their office and into their homes, so their bonding session is being held over Zoom. Crayons are involved.

They are taking part in a picture-drawing workshop. As an emcee guides them along they draw pictures about something delicious they recently ate, what they imagine while listening to their current favorite songs or how they while away their stay-home time.

"It's the first time in 30 years that I have used crayons!" one participant says.

Uridoki CEO Yasuo Kogure, who expresses his enthusiasm for business in his crayon work of art, explains, "We have rookies and new members but we're losing our communication. I wanted to make up for this and strengthen the connections among us."

As remote work takes hold, more employees are dealing with a range of emotions. There is more family time and added freedom from not having to commute. But there is also the stress and uneasiness of trying to work far from one's colleagues.

The face to face problem-solving that used to take place among co-workers now must be conducted via text messaging.

This is the void some Japanese startups are stepping into, bringing solutions that encourage better communication and understanding among colleagues.

Play Life, a Tokyo-based operator of an Internet site for sharing leisure information, devised the Zoom workshop. The name of its online event service, Bazukuri, is Japanese for "creation of venues."

CEO Taichi Sato describes the service as a substitute for the corporate Japan tradition of in-house drinking parties. Remote work has broken down connections between employees and cut down on the conversations that used to be part of daily office life. Play Life says its programs bring colleagues closer together through the sharing of a single experience.

Its menu lists more than 100 programs, including a cooking workshop in which the same ingredients are delivered to everyone's homes and participants share the experience of making a pot of curry. There are also muscle-training and board game programs, each of which is moderated by Play Life employees so participants, the company says, won't be bothered by the sense of distance inherent in online interactions.

A total of 500 people have joined a shared experience since the service was rolled out at the end of May.

Remote work is becoming increasingly common among young startups on tight budgets and established companies with plenty of resources. Hitachi in May drew much attention when the industrial conglomerate announced a review of its personnel system and an intent to allow 70% of its employees to continue working at home two to three days a week. Likewise, consumer goods maker Unicharm will let 60% of its employees in Japan work from home two days a week.

But not everyone who has been asked to work from home is enjoying the arrangement. According to a survey by Japan Productivity Center, more than 40% of respondents said they were "dissatisfied" or "somewhat dissatisfied" with working at home. Nearly 70% admitted their productivity "declined" or "somewhat declined" at home.

In a telework setting, managers cannot closely monitor what their subordinates are doing and how much they are accomplishing, which can lead to misunderstandings.

To overcome this potential risk, Kakeai, a startup based in Tokyo's Minato Ward, offers a web service that helps employees reveal what they are thinking and smooths out their communications with managers.

When employees have a meeting with their managers, they fill out a sheet ahead of time to make clear what they want to talk about and what they expect. This step is aimed at avoiding miscommunication. By using the service, managers can learn how their subordinates look at them and what employees have noticed about their colleagues. As a result, managers can gain a better understanding of employees who are working remotely, the service provider says.

"It has been hard for managers to see how subordinates are doing," Kakeai CEO Hidetaka Honda said. "That's why I recognized the need to create an environment that allows managers to easily talk to each employee."

The service can be "a tool of increasing contact between managers and subordinates," according to a person in charge of human resources at Persol Holdings, which is using the service on a trial basis.

When people have fewer conversations with colleagues and no place to speak out, they tend to keep their worries bottled up. Emol, a startup based in Tokyo's Taito Ward, offers an online bulletin board where employees can post their concerns anonymously. Colleagues can reply with stamps or emoji to express empathy, and relevant division heads can propose solutions. AI chatbots (software that can engage in rudimentary conversation) are also available to help employees figure out what the problem really is before posting something.

"Formal questionnaires don't work most of the time because few employees take the trouble to answer them," emol COO Daiki Takegawa said. "We wanted a more casual and interactive way of solving problems."

More than 160 companies have subscribed to the service since it was officially released in May. Management at a startup in Shibuya appreciates the service's effectiveness. "What gets written on the bulletin board does not fly away," one said. "We can store the concerns in a database."

For large companies with many users, there is another service that analyzes posts and identifies the client's human resource challenges. It takes full advantage of written communication, which can be stored, unlike free-flowing face-to-face chats.

It was only several months ago that corporate Japan seriously turned to remote work. Even though many people are having difficulty adjusting to the setup, the trend shows little sign of abating.

But it has also led to a new wave of startups with solutions to help employees and managers alike through the inevitable hiccups as well as the all-too-real anguish of loneliness and anxiety.

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