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A free beverage if you have a buddy

What if you ran a company where your employees are spending their days in their cubicles staring at computer screens in silence? What if you wanted your employees to interact face-to-face a little more? Would you be willing to give your employees free drinks to talk to each other?

Here’s another creative example for the next time you cover operant conditioning. (Read more here.)

Kokuyo, Co., a manufacturer of office supplies, installed a Suntory Beverage & Food company vending machine in one of their offices. While the vending machine behaves like other vending machines, it has one additional feature. If an employee grabs a buddy and they both allow the vending machine to scan their employee ID cards at the same time, the vending machine dispenses a free beverage to both employees. While there is no guarantee that those employees, with free beverage in hand, will have a conversation, it certainly provides the opportunity.

The behavior: inviting a fellow employee to go to the vending machine with you. If you continue to make buddy trips to the vending machine, the positive reinforcement is a free beverage.

If the behavior is occurring too frequently, the vending machine can be programmed to limit the hours when free beverages would be available, or it can be programmed to limit how many free beverages a particular ID can get in a specific time period. Maybe it can also be programmed so that a pair of IDs can only be used a certain number of times, and after that, you have to invite someone else?

If you’d like, challenge your students to think about how the Kokuyo management would know if the vending machine was working to increase employee face-to-face interactions. What variables would students measure? And if the vending machine was not working as well as they would like, what else could the company do? Maybe put the vending machine in a space with a living room-type atmosphere, complete with comfy chairs? Do some beverages lend themselves better to conversation than others? For example, might a vending machine that dispensed coffee or tea be more effective at encouraging conversation than, say, one that dispensed energy drinks?

Having taught many classes in two- to three-hour blocks for almost 30 years, I witnessed the short class breaks only occasionally leading to students talking to each other. Would such a vending machine outside the classroom increase interactions? What if the machine required, say, three student IDs to dispense a free beverage or snack?

The cynical side of me wonders if that would lead to student ID theft? But then I suppose that wouldn’t last long because if Student A reported their ID missing, a quick scan of the vending machine’s data would show which other student used Student A’s ID at the machine.  

In what other contexts can your students see value in having such a system? What else might be dispensed from a machine that students might find reinforcing? (Having reread that question, I’m not sure this is the best question to ask students. They’re your students; use your best judgment.)

Source: macmillan psych community