With remote work becoming commonplace in Japan since the coronavirus pandemic, companies are seeking ways to have employees interact through "club activities," including in-person gatherings on holidays involving colleagues who have only previously met online.
Some companies have even started subsidizing club expenses after finding the activities deliver for their business.
Hiroki Hasumi, 50, who works for Tokio Marine & Nichido Fire Insurance Co. in Tokyo, launched a virtual cycling club last July.
He had envisioned using an app that would allow people to ride virtually from home, but once he got started, the demand for real-life interactions was overwhelming.
"More people than I had imagined wanted the experience of the real world," Hasumi said.
As the situation with COVID infections abated, he introduced actual cycling events in which people gathered and participated in rides together. "We get a sense of unity, and we can reaffirm our identity with the company," he explained.
Japanese e-commerce company Mercari, Inc., which operates a popular marketplace app in Tokyo, hands out 3,000 yen ($24.00) per employee per month for club activities that meet certain conditions, such as having five or more participants and reporting the activities to the company.
In the wake of the pandemic, the company gave employees more options on where they can live and supports interactions among those who find it challenging to meet in real life.
Tokyo-based IT infrastructure company Cocoo Corp. boasts one of the more eccentric club activities. Club members gather at home in front of their computers to participate in "silent self-study" sessions as they aim to acquire qualifications.
Members of the club, which currently total 28, say they find the activities helpful since they can learn from others in the group and feel more motivated because it is better than studying alone.
At Cocoo, during the depths of the pandemic, around 90 percent of employees worked remotely. The company planned online drinking parties to encourage employee interactions, but only 10 out of about 300 people participated.
"We needed an activity that employees could enjoy more actively," said Kazushi Ishii, 37, from the company's culture promotion department.
Ishii launched the firm's photography club in July 2020. Since then, 29 clubs have sprung up with about 50 percent of staff members joining up.
Many clubs have actual gatherings such as futsal games and camping trips. Through the club activities, some young employees said they had conversations for the first time with people they had only seen on a screen.
Shunta Sasaki, 32, who works in the same department, said the club activities have "made it easier to propose work ideas" regardless of position or department. He said employees have also noted that conversations at meetings have become livelier.
"We want to regain the normal experiences that we've lost due to the coronavirus pandemic," Sasaki said.