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Flexibility and Engagement in the Workplace: The Japan Perspective

Hosted by: BP Alcatel-Lucent

As the workload for the average HR professional increases, it is becoming ever more difficult to balance success at work, with enough time for family and personal endeavours. With the rise of technology connecting us 24/7, we are now spending more time on mobile phones reading and replying to emails than ever before. Globally, we are seeing corporations rollout workplace flexibility initiatives such as flexitime, working from home and ‘no overtime’ policies.

In September 2015, ChapmanCG co-hosted two gatherings to discuss and share the current issues being faced in the Japan HR market. The first meeting took place at BP’s Osaki offices in Tokyo where the discussion centred on the challenges of actually implementing flexible working. A quality group of HR Leaders was in attendance from Japanese, as well as non-Japanese, companies representing a diverse range of industries from manufacturing, IT&T, consumer and services, to healthcare.

It was clear from the discussion that the majority of organisations is taking this issue very seriously, and that there are many potential solutions in development that can work, depending on the situation. A huge budget isn’t usually required, but it was agreed that HR needs to partner with business leaders closely to drive these initiatives forward company-wide. Inevitably, senior executives ‘leading by example’ is what ultimately changes the behaviour and culture of organisations, as detailed below along with the key discussion points from the meeting.


Leading by Example

One Japanese manufacturer has implemented flexitime with ‘core time’, when employees are expected to be working, between 11:00 and 15:00. No management permission is required to enjoy the benefits of flexitime, and HR sometimes leave at 17:00 to set an example. This has been particularly successful with working mothers who need to pick up their children from day-care, but the more conservative members of management did feel at times that they had ‘lost control’ of their employees, and found that they were not there when needed.

A global healthcare company shared recent attempts, via multiple communication tools, to encourage employees to work differently. When nothing worked, HR asked the President of the company for his support. The President shared his success story with the organisation, pushing leaders to balance productivity and flexibility. He asked everyone to make one commitment to improve his or her work and/or personal life, whether that was to book a holiday, go home early once a week, or eliminate a redundant process. Lights were turned on and off at the same time each day as a symbolic gesture to make everyone think about the way they were working. Although the final results are still trickling down, there has already been some change in behaviour, emphasising the importance of top-down messaging.

Tug of War between Input and Output

Another Japanese manufacturer stated that the biggest problem is that many people still view input as more important than output. Flexible work processes won’t happen, as long as management still values working long hours over results. In order to change this, HR in this organisation has initiated a contest for employees to come up with 10 novel ideas to increase efficiency and effectiveness, where the winning prize is an overseas trip.

One global IT firm has moved to a mobile desk plan where everyone gets a laptop and can move to a different desk every day, to allow for better collaboration. Although there is some movement, people do still tend to sit with their friends. As many IT sales professionals and engineers in the company work around the clock when necessary, they have a flexitime scheme without ‘core time’. It was noted that older employees are less comfortable with this arrangement, as compared with new graduates.

It became clear in the discussions that the most challenging aspect of establishing flexibility initiatives in the workplace can be getting buy-in from employees, rather than creating the initiatives in the first place. Without a shift in mentality from ‘input over output’ to ‘output over input’, HR will forever be fighting a losing battle.

Motivating Without Financial Reward

The second meeting, also in the Osaki district of Tokyo, was co-hosted with telecommunications provider Alcatel-Lucent and focused on the issue of Employee Engagement, and particularly, maximising engagement without financial reward. As the job market becomes increasingly competitive for top talent, the power has shifted from the employer to the employee. Today’s workers are no longer putting the emphasis on salary, benefits or lifetime employment as in the past, rather they are looking for a higher purpose, vision and work-life balance. Below is a summary of the discussion on creative ways to engage employees, which included representatives from leading IT, consumer, pharmaceutical, insurance and financial companies in Japan.


Declining Value of Awards

One global IT firm described a difficult situation the company encountered in engaging the workforce, which was partly due to cost pressures to reduce annual merit increases. In the past the organisation tried to reward and motivate employees using awards that were presented by the regional President. The organisation also attempted to increase collaboration with team dinners. Initially, the effects were positive, but when these things became expected and were no longer perceived as special, there was no effect on engagement at all. Another global IT service provider shared that ‘spot awards’, which are designed to recognise special contributions as they occur, had proven effective for the organisation, as there is no delay between performance and reward. In this scenario, each manager had the authority to give two rewards every month. The point was made that it is more difficult to engage employees in remote locations, so frequent communication is important. A global manufacturing company also touched on the fact that typically Japanese people don’t get recognized as much for a couple of reasons: 1) because they’re less likely to ‘blow their own trumpets’, and 2) because their managers are often overseas.

Alternatives to Awards

  • Social Networks: One pharmaceutical company had tried using social enterprise network Yammer, with limited success, to engage employees. Some people were happy to use the app, while others felt that they were overwhelmed by the amount of communication. This company found that because the messages were in English, Japanese employees tended to ignore them.
  • Family events: Another company utilised what is now the classic ‘family event’ where the organisation brings employees, spouses and children together for a picnic, bowling or other activity. This works particularly well for those working outside of their hometowns, but it can also be effective in a more metropolitan area like Tokyo.
  • Benefit Overview Events: At one insurance company there are monthly themed events centralised on a particular topic related to employee benefits, for example, wellness. This organisation found that because of the large amounts of information that employees receive, they don’t often realise what benefits are on offer. At these events employees are educated on the programmes that they can take advantage of throughout the year. It costs the company very little extra money to run these, and therefore to increase engagement in this way.
  • Employee Engagement Survey: The group also agreed on another critical tool to make employees feel involved: the engagement survey. From these surveys, employees get a sense that manage
    ment values their opinions, and if implemented correctly this creates engagement. It was noted that it is not necessary to run a survey every year; rather every two years is best. The first year is inevitably about analysing the results, and year two is about implementing changes. It can be helpful to involve the people who raise particular points to help develop solutions in the identified area for change.


Evidence indicates that rewards and awards alike only spike motivation for a short period of time. Long-term engagement involves open communication, where the employees feel that their voices are being heard. Winning the hearts of the employees using social events, IT communication tools, and satisfaction surveys can result in lower turnover, increased motivation and higher productivity. This is all of course easier said than done. Engagement doesn’t happen overnight, so a long-term strategy and commitment is required; giving up too early in the process can have the opposite effect.

Many thanks go to our hosts at BP and Alcatel-Lucent for helping to arrange these two valuable discussions. We look forward to calling these groups together again in early 2016 to discuss the current trends in the HR market in Japan.

Here’s What People are Saying:

“Thank you for giving us the opportunity to host such a wonderful event. I thoroughly enjoyed our discussion. We are all facing common challenges in our respective businesses, and it is getting very important to network and learn from each other across industries.” – Yasko Nagahama, BP

We seem to have common challenges regarding agile working. It’s not just about where you work, but how you work, and that is all about making a step change toward holding yourself accountable for quality output wherever you are.” – Reiko Teshiba, L’Oreal

“I was personally challenged to hear how rapidly things are changing, and the need to stay abreast with the times – or stay several steps ahead.” – Akira Endo, DHL Express

“I really enjoyed being there! I think that changing work environment flexibility should be connected with performance, productivity and the outcome of team/individual employees.” – Mikiko Okada, General Electric

“The round tables organized by Oscar and Yan Sen are a great opportunity to stay tuned with what’s going on in the market in terms of HR practices and get new ideas. The mix of participants is ideal for a great discussion!” – Alejandro Casado Revilla, LIXIL

“It is important for HR leaders to get the latest best practices from other companies and to refresh their networks to enhance business insights. This roundtable is surely such a kind of opportunity.” – Yoshihito Kishida, Alcon

“I very much enjoyed the meeting, it was great to meet other HR colleagues and share views.” – Tim McIntosh, MasterCard


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