Workplace Robot Wellness Coaches: Appearance Influences Perception and Effectiveness

QT robot (left) and Misty robot (right)
Credit: Hatice Gunes

(IN BRIEF) Researchers from the University of Cambridge conducted a study in a tech consultancy firm, using two robot wellbeing coaches, where 26 employees participated in weekly robot-led wellbeing sessions for four weeks. The physical appearance of the robot affected how participants interacted with it, and participants who did their wellbeing exercises with a toy-like robot said that they felt more of a connection with their ‘coach’ than participants who worked with a humanoid-like robot. Although the robots had identical voices, facial expressions, and scripts for the sessions, the researchers say that perception of robots is affected by popular culture. Despite the differences between expectations and reality, the researchers say that their study shows that robots can be a useful tool to promote mental wellbeing in the workplace.

(PRESS RELEASE) CAMBRIDGE, 15-Mar-2023 — /EuropaWire/ — A study by the University of Cambridge, the second-oldest university in the English-speaking world, suggests that the physical appearance of robot wellness coaches can greatly impact their effectiveness in promoting mental wellbeing in the workplace.

The study, conducted in a tech consultancy firm, involved 26 employees participating in weekly robot-led wellness sessions over a four-week period. The two robot coaches used in the experiment were identical in voice, facial expressions, and session scripts, but their physical appearances differed significantly. The researchers discovered that the robot’s appearance influenced how participants interacted with it.

Employees who engaged in the wellness exercises with a toy-like robot reported feeling a stronger connection with their “coach” than those who interacted with a humanoid-like robot. The researchers attributed this finding to the influence of popular culture, where the portrayal of robots is often limited only by the imagination. Consequently, when individuals encounter robots in real life, they may struggle to match their expectations with reality.

The toy-like robot’s simpler appearance could have led participants to have lower expectations, making it easier for them to communicate and connect with the robot. Conversely, those who worked with the humanoid robot found that their expectations were not met, as the robot was incapable of engaging in interactive conversations.

The study’s results, which demonstrate the potential for robots to serve as valuable tools for promoting workplace mental wellbeing, will be presented today (15 March) at the ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction in Stockholm.

The World Health Organization urges employers to prioritize mental wellbeing in the workplace. However, the implementation of wellness practices is often hindered by limited resources and personnel. Though robots have shown promise in addressing this gap, most studies on robots and wellbeing have been conducted in lab settings.

“We wanted to take the robots out of the lab and study how they might be useful in the real world,” said first author Dr Micol Spitale, from Cambridge’s Department of Computer Science and Technology.

In collaboration with Cambridge Consultants, the researchers designed and executed a workplace wellness program using robots. Over four weeks, employees were guided through four different wellness exercises by either the QTRobot (QT) or the Misty II robot (Misty). The QT is a 90cm tall childlike humanoid robot, while Misty is a 36cm tall toy-like robot. Both robots have screen faces capable of displaying various facial expressions.

The robot-led exercises took place in an office meeting room, with participants recalling positive experiences or expressing gratitude. The robot would then ask follow-up questions. After each session, participants assessed the robot using a questionnaire and an interview. They worked with the same robot for all four sessions.

“We interviewed different wellbeing coaches and then we programmed our robots to have a coach-like personality, with high openness and conscientiousness,” said co-author Minja Axelsson. “The robots were programmed to have the same personality, the same facial expressions and the same voice, so the only difference between them was the physical robot form.”

Those who interacted with the toy-like Misty robot reported a better working relationship and a more positive perception of the robot compared to those who worked with the child-like QT robot. Despite the robots not being as advanced as their fictional counterparts, participants found the wellness exercises helpful and were open to talking to a robot in the future.

“It could be that since the Misty robot is more toy-like, it matched their expectations,” said Spitale. “But since QT is more humanoid, they expected it to behave like a human, which may be why participants who worked with QT were slightly underwhelmed.”

“The most common response we had from participants was that their expectations of the robot didn’t match with reality,” said Professor Hatice Gunes, who led the research. “We programmed the robots with a script, but participants were hoping there would be more interactivity. It’s incredibly difficult to create a robot that’s capable of natural conversation. New developments in large language models could really be beneficial in this respect.”

“Our perceptions of how robots should look or behave might be holding back the uptake of robotics in areas where they can be useful,” said Axelsson.

“The robot can serve as a physical reminder to commit to the practice of wellbeing exercises,” said Gunes. “And just saying things out loud, even to a robot, can be helpful when you’re trying to improve mental wellbeing.”

The research team is now focused on improving the robot coaches’ responsiveness during coaching practices and interactions. This study was supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Hatice Gunes is a Staff Fellow of Trinity Hall, Cambridge.

Micol Spitale, Minja Axelsson, and Hatice Gunes. ‘Robotic Mental Well-being Coaches for the Workplace: An In-the-Wild Study on Form.’ Paper presented to the ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction, Stockholm, Sweden, 13-16 March 2023.

Try a positive psychology session with the robots used in this research as part of the Cambridge Festival on Saturday, 18 March. 

Media contacts:

Sarah Collins
External Affairs and Communications team

SOURCE: University of Cambridge


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