Japan charts upturn in local fortunes as Tokyo turns to teleworking

The second WORKTECH Tokyo conference didn’t just rely on new ideas from elsewhere – after years of stagnation, the local market is showing positive signs of adopting new ways of working

A more robust economy, the upcoming 2020 Olympics and Paralymics and the sweeping realisation in both the public and private sectors about the dire costs of inaction are driving Japan to re-evaluate working life and what an office is.

The second WORKTECH Tokyo conference on 4 April 2019 at Mori Building’s sleek and imposing Toranomon Hills Forum brought fresh perspectives from abroad just as the inaugural event did. This time, however, there were some positive developments on the home front as well. With the 2020 Games coming up, easing commuter congestion is vital. The Japanese government’s work reform bill—passed just months after the first WORKTECH event—calls for a doubling of teleworking. A revised regional revitalization bill also encourages this trend.

Admittedly, most people in Japan still dutifully show up at an office at a pre-set hour, sit down at a desk in an open-plan workspace, and rarely stray from their seats (outside of lunch) until the workday is done. They’re siloed and static.

All that is now subject to change, however. Everywhere from satellite spaces to offices to entire cities, workplace flexibility and fluidity—along with the environment and employee work-life balance considerations—were pivotal themes at Worktech19.

Problems and solutions

Shotaro Yamashita, the editor-in-chief of furniture manufactuer Kokuyo’s WorkSight magazine, toured the world of workplaces—a thousand of them, in 50 cities and 30 countries—to assess the future of smart working environments. He found AI and dedicated apps driving a lot of the action at places such as Zalando headquarters in Berlin and Tencent’s headquarters in Shenzen. Companies such as Google are building their own big-scale smart cities, and Barcelona and Amsterdam are getting smarter based on what their citizens want. Yamashita also touched on the platform society model, noting that while benefits are apparent, the sheer depth of data people are trading for them is problematic.

Midori Ainoura, a partner at PLP Architecture, spoke about the iconic structure known as the Edge—the planet’s most sustainable office building—and what will supersede it. She sees buildings becoming brands, creating an even tighter link between business and leisure, and constantly learning. Those qualities will bring big drops in management and energy costs, and human benefits such as wellness and ‘brilliant moments of creation’.

Regional redistribution

Kiyohito Yamamoto from NTT Communications Corporation discussed regional revitalization initiatives designed to spread out the labour pool and boost work-life balance. That includes activity-based working and what he terms ‘workations’ – combining work and play away from the office. Cities such as Karuizawa and prefectures like Wakayama are pursuing this coming market. NTT’s NoMado teleworking setup is designed for this, he says, connecting workers remotely via a constant voice-activated connection.

Yoshio Nakayama, director of Xymax Real Estate Institute, explained that the distributed style of working is coming, as evidenced by how much Japanese firms are investing in ICT to support teleworking. More than three-quarters of companies in Japan plan to incorporate telework in their businesses. Third-place offices—typified by Xymax’s own satellite spaces—will be prime locations for workers seeking a workspace alternative. Xymax is doubling its stock from 50 to 100 sites in Tokyo alone to accommodate them.

Fluid, flexible and environmental

Futurologist and UnWork CEO Philip Ross led off the international contingent, speaking on his jellybean theory of work-style ‘flavours’ and how the right mix of people, places and technology—including AI-driven workplaces, smartphones and apps—will engage Gen Z and millennials and ‘engineer serendipity’. Thea von Geldern from Allied Works Architecture recounted her firm’s work on clothing giant Uniqlo’s new headquarters, Uniqlo City. Featuring a main street that branches off into both dedicated and freely configurable spaces, Uniqlo City is a malleable environment designed to encourage inspiration. Von Geldern stressed that, for this experimental setup to succeed, buy-in is required from management.

From Veldhoen + Company, the Netherlands firm that developed the activity-based working concept, Iolanda Meehan urged listeners to remember the human element in any workplace update. She echoed Thea von Geldern’s thought on management: to lead a distributed, mobile team effectively, managers will have to vastly upgrade their skills and flexibility, and trust their staff.

Workplace designer Kelly Robinson, meanwhile, believes we need to make workplaces communities focused on a shared love of the planet to survive. An overwhelming majority of millennials considers that an imperative, she explained, insisting that they’ll look for firms such as Patagonia and Etsy that reflect their environmental values. This includes banning plastic packaging, composting and buying food for the office cafeteria locally.

Turning into chameleons

The CEO of architectural firm BVN James Grose, suggested the environs of office buildings are turning into chameleons that can be transformed into whatever is needed—flex spaces, coworking spots and more. He added that big towers with a central core are too static, and do not serve the community as well as side core structures do. Future structures will welcome the surrounding community through multiple points of entry and with gyms, theatres, learning environments and other facilities and amenities.

Killed by commuting

Curated by Mayumi Ishizaki of Xymax, the panel session that wrapped up the day featured representatives from Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport (MLIT), Xymax, Ricoh Leasing, and Tokyu Corporation discussing workplace productivity and what’s hampering it. Long commutes, they agreed, are killing both job and life satisfaction.

Kento Nagata from satellite office provider Xymax noted that 70 per cent of corporations in Japan are scrambling for ways to ratchet up productivity, but under half report making any headway. Ricoh Leasing’s Tokuhara Nakamura said his salespeople use satellite share offices to avoid excess commuting, while Shinichi Nagatsuka from Tokyu Corporation noted that one day of teleworking per week would reduce ridership by half. From the employee standpoint, Xymax’s Nagata reported that  the desire is clear – Xymax research shows 75 percent of them want to work remotely. The MLIT’s Hiroki Iinuma summed things up, saying: ‘We need to free people from time and location restrictions.’

Doug Jackson is a Tokyo-based writer with Fresh Eyes Comunications. WORKTECH Tokyo 2019 review site coming soon.
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