Nov 11, 2019

How Chatwork enables and disables communication in the Japanese office

How Chatwork enables and disables communication in the Japanese office photo

I don’t know about your place of work in Japan but here in our Japanese office, the software and app Chatwork plays a significant role in how we communicate.

Headquartered in Osaka, Japan, Chatwork is a software company founded in 2011 whose flagship product is a group chat app of the same name - Chatwork. According to the developers, the Chatwork app is Asia’s number one business chat app. Perhaps it is to the offices of Japan, what Slack is to Silicon Valley.

Through Chatwork’s instant messaging functions that facilitate group and private chats the office worker in Japan can be kept abreast of the goings on in their own team as well is in those teams and departments whose chat groups they have been invited to join. Chatwork also has task management functions through which users can assign tasks (with deadlines) to themselves and others, video chat, and file sharing functions.

As an English teacher in Japan I had never heard of Chatwork. Now, as an office worker in Japan (and courtesy of having the app downloaded to my smartphone), Chatwork has become an ever-present source of work convenience, connectivity, irritation and sometimes fear.

Like all forms of social media, Chatwork is great until it gets into the hands of people who feel that because the face-to-face element has been taken away they no longer need to adhere to decent, civilized norms of communication. 

How Chatwork enables and disables communication in the Japanese office: Jump to ...

Facilitating workplace communication

Facilitating isolation

Exacerbating language barriers

Awful emojis

Facilitating unwanted communication outside of work

And the point is?

There can be no doubt though (in this office worker’s mind) that Chatwork enables communication more for the good of the workplace than it does to its detriment.

Facilitating workplace communication

Serious examples of this can be found on those occasions when large typhoons sweeping across Japan present serious threats to the safety of office workers commuting to and from work.

Department heads in one easy message can deliver the definitive instructions to everyone at work about whether or not they should be staying at home. Gone, then, are the days of, “Well, Tanaka-san in marketing said that their boss told them they have to come into work, when everyone else gets to stay home.” In this respect Chatwork serves to get the word out from the most authoritative source.

Of course, for the foreigner working in Japan in a predominantly Japanese office, such instructions delivered in Japanese can be hard to read, and to the best of my knowledge Chatwork has yet to develop a translation function. So then, some messages slip through. They go unread because they can’t be read, or even if they can, a lot of the nuance is lost. 

Less serious but equal evidence of Chatwork’s effectivity, the time when my thermos went missing from the company water cooler (during a quick toilet break). One message dropped on the company-wide group chat and the thing was returned within 10 minutes. Of course, I had to get a Japanese colleague to compose the message such that it didn’t appear accusatory. 

Even when action isn’t required Chatwork’s open flow of messaging serves to keep people in the loop and it’s much easier to sift through a thread of past messages than it is to open and close a bunch of emails from the past, some of which you might have deleted anyway. 

On a personal level, I’m also a fan of the task management function allowing tasks to be made visible as reminders that they still need doing, and by when. (And hitting the “Done” button serves as a satisfying exclamation point for a task that is, indeed, done.)

In fact, the use of Chatwork has become such an integral part of our working environment here in Japan, that it is hard to imagine how we could work equally as effectively without it.  

But Chatwork can also disable communication and primarily this is because it eliminates the element of face-to-face communication, perhaps the most important form of all. 

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy hiding behind Chatwork just like anyone else -- the app facilitates communication in this way, where there might otherwise have been none at all -- but in some cases, this is to mine and my colleagues’ detriment.

Facilitating isolation

It came as something of a shock to me when I started working in a Japanese office environment, that a colleague sitting next me would send me requests, queries, and instructions by way of Chatwork rather than just turn 45 degrees and convey their message in person.  

Maybe they want to have a permanent record of said messages to refer to. Maybe they want chat members in the loop, too. Maybe they don’t want to disturb me. Or perhaps they just don’t like me that much. All legitimate points of concern.

This form of communication though, can isolate. I used to sit next to my Japanese boss. I enjoyed sitting next to my boss. He wasn’t one to hold back when I was doing things incorrectly or not living up to my potential, but he also made me laugh and I enjoyed cultivating a relationship with him.

He’s since moved to another cluster of desks. I can see him from where I’m sitting but the, albeit paltry, physical distance between us now means we communicate mostly via Chatwork. We sit about 10 meters apart but can go whole days without speaking to each other. And I feel the lack that results from this. And it’s not just my boss. It’s other colleagues that I could be closer to but am not.  

Put simply, Chatwork keeps too many of us stuck to our chairs and too far apart, even when we’re sitting right next to each other.

Exacerbating language barriers

Messaging apps like Chatwork, rather than enable communication, can also serve to exacerbate communication breakdown, especially when you’ve got foreigners whose Japanese language skills are lacking. In fact, even those foreigners working in Japan whose language level is pretty high, can be thrown off by messages sent in Japanese via a service like Chatwork. At least, this foreigner is.  

What should have been a quick and casual form of communication, unbound by rules of grammar and social standing, can turn into a fraught ordeal in the hands of Chatwork -- although the irony is that such interactions can force us out of our chairs to go and deal with things face-to-face.   

“What did they mean by that?”,  “This is a new word for me.”,  “Who and what are the subjects and objects in the message -- i.e. what are they expecting me to do?”   The combination of language barrier and Chatwork can create more problems in this regard than it does solutions. 

Sometimes Japanese colleagues make a point of sending me messages in English. It’s sweet and I should appreciate it more than I do, but it can be hard to when said messages deliver more confusion than they do clarity. 

And again, the open flow of information facilitated by Chatwork is great, if you can actually read it all. When you can’t, as must be the case for many foreigners working in Japan, it can be a cause for stress and unnecessary concern. Where once colleagues might have come to deliver a message in person to make sure you get it and understand it, too often such matters are left to the chance of Chatwork.

Awful emojis

I’ve been using Chatwork for over four years now and I can’t always remember it facilitating the use of emojis. It does now and I’m not sure if there is anything that’s much good to be said about them.

"I wish we could disable “Bowing Person” as much as I wish I could ignore it and the requests it is all too often used to punctuate."

There are 42 emojis and icons that can be used to respond to messages sent via Chatwork. In the wrong hands (Are there right hands for this kind of work?) some of them facilitate the most irritating form of communication. 

The ire of this foreign worker in Japan is particularly drawn to the “Bowing Person” emoji -- the daft clumpen hands of which make it look it’s sporting a mustache. 

When you did something good at work, when you helped someone out, people used to come to you in person and say, “Thank you.”  Then Chatwork came along, but at least grateful colleagues used write the words out. Now, all too often, they just select the “Bowing Person” emoji, an action so devoid of effort they might as well be sticking their middle finger up to people to whom they should be expressing gratitude.

The worst of the “Bowing Person” emoji though, is served up when colleagues want you to do something for them. They send the request on Chatwork and punctuate it with “Bowing Person” as the passive-aggressive way of communicating that actually, they understand that it will be troublesome but they expect it to be done anyway and are thanking you, in a derisory manner, for doing it, even before you’ve decided to take the time to actually do it.  

This use of “Bowing Person” is a damning indictment of the worst side of the Japanese person’s fear of confrontation, and the lazy person’s grotesque exploitation of a service that is actually supposed to be bettering communication. In short, it’s the cowards approach to communicating tasks. I wish we could disable “Bowing Person” as much as I wish I could ignore it and the requests it is all too often used to punctuate.

Facilitating unwanted communication outside of work

Chatwork is addictive and can be almost psychotically annoying, especially when you’ve got it downloaded onto your smartphone. It facilitates communication about work outside of the office almost as much as it does communication within the office. In short, it makes it hard to switch off. Maybe it’s the notifications. No, it can’t be that because I’ve turned them off.  

Somehow, emails you can ignore once you’re back at home, perhaps it’s because in the current office climate the most action-requiring of communications are no longer sent this way. But Chatwork is just all-too-easy to open up and see when someone’s trying to reach out to you. Let’s rephrase that -- when you know someone is still in the office working after you’ve returned home and there’s a danger they’re going to inflict their state of work onto you, too. 

It’s a truism that the Japanese work long hours (not to be confused with working effectively or productively) so when working in Japan there’s always the risk of work encroaching on your private time courtesy of those putting in the extra hours, via Chatwork.

For a year or so I endured a Japanese colleague who, from the safety buffer of Chatwork, would send messages to me up until around 23:00 (I finish work at 19:00). What made this most infuriating was the nature of the messages -- small requests about things they wanted me to do the next day. “Well, if it can wait until tomorrow, then bloody message me about it tomorrow!”

Of course, the simple solution here would be not to check Chatwork once out of the office. But what if there is an emergency -- something that really does need my attention and corresponding action?  

Again, one of the problems of a service like Chatwork is that it discourages us from face-to-face communication and it flattens all potential nuance, especially when there are language barriers in play. I never could respond such that this Japanese colleague was able to pick up on my air of grievance.  

My American colleague is less afraid of the confrontation and sent a message to the guilty colleague in a way that couldn’t be misunderstood. They got the “Bowing Person” emoji as a response, of course.

And the point is?

Now, it may seem that this article about how Chatwork enables and disables communication in the Japanese office is mostly composed of complaints and not offering any communication solutions and, well, what was the point? 

The point though, is to give insights into the working environment in Japan, from the perspective of a foreigner working in Japan. It is to arm the potential foreign worker with information such that they might be able to address things from the get-go. 

I’ve neglected my efforts toward face-to-face communication with Japanese colleagues, having become too wrapped up in the pashmina of comfort provided by a service like Chatwork. And the longer I continue to fail to address this issue, the harder it gets to resolve.  

I spent a year losing sleep out of frustration toward Japanese colleagues who seemed to think nothing of using Chatwork as a way to drop me messages about work into the late hours. I should have acted earlier. Back home, the issue would have been unlikely to rear its head but cultural differences exist and I regret not having attempted to address this particular one earlier. 

I also began working in an office in Japan having no idea what Chatwork was let alone how to use it effectively. It would have been nice to have known about it, and its functions, pros and cons earlier so I could have displayed a bit of Chatwork savvy early doors. 

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