Robots can improve mental wellbeing in the workplace – if they look right

The study by Cambridge researchers found that participants formed a better connection with the toy-like robot than with the humanoid one

30th March 2023 about a 4 minute read
“It could be that since the Misty robot is more toy-like, it matched their expectations. 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.” Dr Micol Spitale, postdoctoral researcher, department of computer science and technology, University of Cambridge

Robots can be useful as mental wellbeing coaches in the workplace – but their effectiveness partly depends on how they look, according to new research from the University of Cambridge.

The study involved placing two robot wellbeing coaches in a technology consultancy firm, where 26 employees participated for four weeks in weekly robot-led sessions. The robots had identical voices, facial expressions, and scripts for the sessions – but a different physical appearance. One, Misty, looked like a toy, and the other, QT, had a more human appearance. Misty is 36cm in height while QT is 90cm. Both robots have screen faces that can be programmed with different facial expressions

Participants who did their wellbeing exercises with Misty said that they felt more of a connection with it than participants who worked with QT.

Presenting their findings at the ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction in Stockholm, the researchers said their study showed that robots can be a useful tool to promote mental wellbeing in the workplace. They hypothesised that participants had lower expectations of Misty, and therefore found it easier to talk and connect with. Participants who worked with QT, they suggested, found that their expectations didn’t match reality, since the robot was not capable of having interactive conversations.

Robots programmed to have same personality

Until now, most studies on robots and wellbeing have been conducted in a laboratory setting. “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.

The researchers collaborated with local technology company Cambridge Consultants to design and implement a workplace wellbeing programme using robots.

“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.”

Participants in the experiment were guided through different positive psychology exercises by one of the two robots an office meeting room. Each session started with the robot asking participants to recall a positive experience or describe something in their lives they were grateful for, and the robot would ask follow-up questions. After the sessions, participants were asked to assess the robot with a questionnaire and an interview. Participants did one session per week for four weeks, and worked with the same robot for each session.

Employees in sessions with Misty not only reported a better working connection, they had a more positive perception of the robot overall.

“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.”

Expectations didn’t match reality

“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.”

Co-author Minja Axelsson added that “perceptions of how robots should look or behave might be holding back the uptake of robotics in areas where they can be useful.”

Nonetheless, the participants said they found the wellbeing exercises helpful, and that they were open to the idea of talking to a robot in future.

“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 team is now working to improve the robot coaches’ responsiveness during coaching practices and interactions.

Image credit: Hatice Gunes, University of Cambridge

FCC Insight

This is an interesting study that shows the potential benefits of introducing robots to the workplace to improve mental wellbeing – though it is difficult to know whether the robots added anything to the experience that could not have been achieved by, for example, working through the same exercises with an AI-based wellness app. The finding that participants were less enthusiastic about the humanoid robot suggests that expectations of robot interaction shaped by science fiction are likely to be disappointed in the real world. It’s exciting to see that the Cambridge team is working on improvements – we look forward to seeing future iterations of their wellness robots.