What’s life like for the average worker in Japan? First, endure a stressful, claustrophobic commute on one or more vacuum-packed trains. Next, sit at desks in an open-plan workspace—the cube farms of Dilbert’s world are rare here—and unless they’re salespeople only stray from their seats for lunch or bathroom breaks until the interminable workday is done. Around 75 percent of workers here are stuck at a desk for 13 hours a day.
Unsurprisingly, most Japanese don’t enjoy working all that much
It’s no surprise that employee engagement in Japan is abysmal. In fact, according to research that Gallup did covering the years 2014 to 2016, just 6 percent of Japanese employees at work relish their duties. The other 94 percent were either not engaged or actively disengaged. And the grim specter of karoshi (death from overwork) and work-related suicides lingers after high-profile deaths in recent times.
So Japan is busy reevaluating working life and what an office is, pushed along by a more robust economy, the upcoming 2020 Olympics and Paralympics and the sweeping realization in both the public and private sectors of the dire costs of inaction. The Japanese government’s work reform bill—which went into effect in this April—calls for a doubling of teleworking, with a potential teleworking cohort of 5.5 million people, and other changes. And with the 2020 Games coming up, easing commuter congestion is vital. A revised regional revitalization bill also encourages those trends and others.
Satellite offices, teleworking, activity-based working, “workations” and more
Fortunately for everyone enmeshed in Japan’s workday web, there are positive changes afoot. In the private sector, the four-day work week is spreading: a labor ministry survey says that 6.9 percent of privately held companies with thirty or more full-time employees had introduced the system in some form as of 2018. In 2008, only 3.1 percent had. Microsoft Japan, for example, says it will test out the four-day work week from August 2019 for all staff—and give employees up to 100,000 yen to go on family vacations or develop new skills.
Workplace flexibility and fluidity—along with the office environment and employee work-life balance considerations—were pivotal themes at an April 2019 conference called Worktech19. Research presented by major satellite office provider Xymax Real Estate at the conference reveals that 75 percent of employees want to work remotely. Xymax also reports that more that 70 percent of firms are investing in ICT to support telework, and 76 percent of companies foresee incorporating teleworking by 2030.
Activity-based working—in which no employee owns a particular space or workstation—is another valid and easily doable option. Third-place offices—meaning workspaces outside the office and home—are becoming especially popular with salespeople, who stop in between meeting with clients. Some of these shared offices and coworking places even offer childcare. Shinichi Nagatsuka from Tokyu Corporation stated that one day of teleworking per week would reduce transport ridership by half.
Japan’s regional revitalization initiatives are designed to spread out the labor pool and boost work-life balance. That includes what are known as “workations”—combining work and play away from the office. The city of Karuizawa in Nagano Prefecture, for example, is promoting wellness resorts for teleworking and coworking spaces such as Hanare Karuizawa, which also incorporates a culinary experience. In the Kansai area, Wakayama Prefecture, with its Wakayama Workation Project, is Japan’s most active regional player in the workation space.
Visible progress: Strolling down the avenue in Uniqlo City
The office environment is another battleground for the hearts and minds of employees. In 2015, Fast Retailing set the bar high when it decided to build a new headquarters, to be called Uniqlo City. Situated near the end of Rainbow Bridge in Odaiba, Uniqlo City features a street that runs its entire length, offering ways for employees to find individual inspiration and supporting a range of activities for all hands to smaller groups and individuals, in light spaces, dark spaces, collaborative spaces and personal spaces. Open workspaces are arrayed on the perimeter to take advantage of natural light.
Since the company is known for its collaborations with artists and athletes, Uniqlo City also has a gallery for displaying products and projects to keep employees informed and in touch with the work the company is doing. Its Answer Lab is a space for group activity, focus and respite from the workspace. Worklofts and lounges also offer the getaway experience.
Workplace designer Kelly Robinson—who has created bespoke environments for Airbnb and SoundCloud, believes we can create community in the workspace around a shared love of the planet. Her research shows that 84 percent of millennials consider it a duty to make a difference through their lifestyles, 78 percent are willing to alter their lifestyles to protect the environment, and 49 percent name climate change/destruction of nature as their number one concern. In short, people want to align with companies that reflect their values.
Say that in English, please – English as the official in-house language
There’s another crucial aspect of working life in Japan that globalization is tweaking—language. Countries have official languages, and recently some major Japanese firms with an international market presence and/or hopes for bigger slices are making English official in-house as well. What’s driving this linguistic swap besides the “go global” urge and the flaccid domestic market many firms face? The pivotal factors include workplace diversity—more international employees able to communicate in Japanese plus English and other languages—more overseas communiques from subsidiaries and online inquiries in English, and acquisitions of foreign companies.
E-marketing behemoth Rakuten made the switch in 2010, and Honda announced in 2015 that it would do the same by 2020. Fast Retailing (Uniqlo), auto and truck parts manufacturer Bridgestone and most recently cosmetics giant Shiseido have followed suit. They’re focusing on high TOIEC scores and having meetings, documents and email exchanges in English. While these changes are not hard and fast, they may inspire the ship of commerce here to take a new heading.
Attracting millenials and Gen Z in a shrinking population pool
All of these developments affect anyone doing business in Japan to some degree from an HR perspective (healthy office environments for attracting and retaining employees). If you’re hiring millennials and Gen Z, for example, how you make your environment “sticky” and environmentally friendly—including a kitchen that minimizes plastic waste and uses locally sourced food—will draw them in.
For anyone crafting office environments, offering work havens for road warriors or getaways that are workation-worthy, there’s a market here. Similarly, if you’ve got a business that offers high-end instruction in English designed to boost communications in a global context, you can expect more Japanese firms to follow the lead of Rakuten and others. Probably reluctantly, but once ignited these trends can spread quickly.
The four macro themes of “changing work of work”, “women power”, “generational dynamics”, and “internationalization” have been identified by CarterJMRN as shaping Japan through the Reiwa era.
This article is part of the “changing world of work” series.