With its rapidly aging population and decreasing workforce, Japan is facing a number of challenges when it comes to maintaining its competitive edge. Long known for its culture of overwork, with employees compelled to put in long hours in rigid office settings, the country decided to make some fundamental changes to its labor laws.
In June 2018, the Japanese government passed a work reform bill aiming to cap overtime and encourage flexible working hours for white collar workers. In many cases, this signaled a wholesale change in company culture and working practices.
A key tenet of the reform is the adoption of “activity-based working,” which is similar to working remotely. This enables employees to choose their work locations while offering more flexibility in working hours.
It’s a major shift for many companies in Japan. But Kokuyo, a global manufacturer and seller of stationery, office furniture and office machinery, has embraced activity-based working for some years. As a company with a strong interest in the workplace, it also publishes WORKSIGHT, a publication designed to increase people’s awareness of work environments in Japan.
Kokuyo has enjoyed the benefits of activity-based working for more than 10 years, believing it can stimulate innovation and productivity. However, the firm’s managers are also aware of the challenges of this philosophy, particularly when it comes to employee engagement and interpersonal skills. They understand that implementing the right technology can help to create an engaged and productive workforce.
“Activity-based working improves productivity extremely well in the short-term, but it does tend to foster declining loyalty in the long-term,” explains Shotaro Yamashita, Senior Researcher at Creative Center, Kokuyo Co., Ltd. “When you aren’t going to an office and you converse with your team less, this inevitably leads to a diminished sense of belonging. That is why many companies institute mandatory face-to-face time.”
Yamashita stresses the importance of strategically placed, centrally located and accessible satellite offices. “Recently, I have been taking active advantage of our satellite office. This is beneficial not only in the sense that it provides workplace flexibility, but it also allows interaction with those outside of your normal co-workers,” he says. “For one-on-one communication, a smartphone is sufficient, but for communication between multiple people, it is essential to have an actual place where they can meet and talk.”
The Right Space
It’s also very important to give people the tools they need to communicate comfortably and effectively in conference rooms.
“When you are designing an office, you have to think about how to create an environment where people can communicate naturally without having to raise their voices to be heard,” he says.
Unfortunately, conferencing solutions can be viewed by remote workers as too complicated to set up. The absence of on-site tech support is another roadblock for some. Here simple-to-use, reliable products come into their own, according to Yamashita.
“I recently had a chance to try out the Shure MXA910 ceiling mic, and I think this system is perfectly suited to these emerging needs,” he says. “It is incredibly simple. You only have to configure it once and after that, there’s no fiddling with controls and settings.”
It’s not just communication with colleagues that must be maintained when working remotely. Conversations with clients and other stakeholders are just as critical.
Yamashita recognizes the importance of high-quality sound. “There are times that I have to rely on remote communication for my first meeting with people. The thing that is always on my mind in those situations is whether both of us are seeing and hearing one another equally well,” he says. “But since I have no way of proving it, I just have to have faith in the system I’m using.
“Sometimes during a video conference you’ll hear some small but highly noticeable noise, or the other person’s voice won’t be coming through clearly, but you don’t want to be rude and ask, ‘Sorry, could you repeat that?’ over and over because it’s the first time you are talking with them.”
It’s all about trust. Knowing that conferencing technology will perform reliably and effectively is central to a strong activity-based working strategy. “Sound has a subtle yet profound impact on human relations,” says Yamashita.
So too will Japan’s changing workplace regulations. The importance of choosing the right system will play a key role in ensuring that both employers and employees make the most of the country’s new on-the-job reality.