Whilst the ‘traditional’ view of Japanese workspaces is one of ‘robot-like efficiency’, a move is now underway to provide workspaces to promote creativity, well-being and productivity. Are there any lessons to be learned for UK businesses looking to relocate or undertake and office fit out or refurbishment?

Daniel Harris Rosen of Tokyo-based TokyoDexss argues that “[m]ore people than ever are beginning to realize just how much we are affected by our work environment” and that this is directly being translated into how workpspace designers are re-thinking their approach in Japan.


Harmonizing the work environment with the non-work environment

When MetLife Japan were looking to relocate their business in Akasaka (see photo above. Photo: The ACCJ Journal), their CEO Sachin N. Shah points out that;

The first is that the workplace environment fosters the kind of culture that we want. We try to avoid hard walls, replacing them with see-through ones. This creates a sense of openness, something that is important for our work culture.

Furthermore, designing an environment that encourages collaboration and worker interaction was paramount with much use made of ‘free spaces’ that workers can use for any purpose from eating their lunches to having meetings and collaborative sessions.


Is this shift addressing a problem that doesn’t exist?

Not just in Japan, but globally, office space has tended to be regimented in layout with emphasis placed on desk-bound workers with an ethos that if you’re not working at your desk, then you’re not working! So, what has changed … has this approach not served business well for decades and therefore doesn’t require major surgery?

The answer proposed is that, in order to appreciate the benefit of the new paradigm, attention has to be made to two elements; worker well-being and the bottom line … and an understanding of the close relationship between them, something which, traditionally, has largely been seen as of little significance.

In Japan, many studies have been undertaken in recent years into how workers feel about their employment and their interaction with their working environment and job satisfaction which have produced some alarming results:

  • Just 5 % of respondents questioned for Steelcase Global Report Addendum (2016) found their office environment ‘stimulating’ or ‘innovative’
  • A study by Ipsos Group S.A. concluded that “More than workers in any other nation, the Japanese are dissatisfied with the quality of their life at work. They also rank the highest for disliking their work environment“.
  • A global survey by Steelcase Inc found that 56% of Japanese respondents felt their company culture encouraged ‘collaboration & teamwork’ against a global average of 68% with only 39% stating that their company gained their ‘best efforts’

Evidently, there are issues in Japanese workplaces that require addressing and in many cases, in the aforementioned reports, Japanese businesses rank lower than their global counterparts in areas of employee satisfaction and general well-being.


Creativity v Operational Excellence

Whilst not mutually exclusive concepts, the focus in organisations previously has been the streamlining of business process to their maximum efficiency: a fine-tuning approach akin to the Ford productivity model developed during the early 20th Century. This approach has no room for ‘out of the box’ thinking and employees are largely rendered ‘cogs’ in the organisation’s machinery and processes.

However, in the emerging paradigm the quest for operational excellence is seen as restrictive and employees are seen as the key to successful business: instead of fine-tuning existing processes, unleashing and encouraging the creative thought processes of employees is seen as opening-up a business to limitless possibilities way beyond a blinkered obsession with honing traditional practices.

So how is this encouraged through office interior design?


A Problem Shared

In the spirit of harnessing the creativity of a workforce, the old ‘compartmentalised’ office layout isn’t fit for purpose and therefore an alternative approach is required. To facilitate creativity, the following elements are used:

  • Collaborative spaces: areas of the workplace are designed to allow workers to interact and are flexible spaces for ad-hoc meetings and gatherings where ideas can be shared and problems solved through discussion with other workers.
  • Decor: sterile white office walls are replaced with softer approaches using colour, soft furnishings and plants to give a more domestic or nature-focused aesthetic as this is seen to be more at one with promoting a mental state of well-being and free thinking.
  • Collision Spaces: creating spaces that employees can choose to share with others is one thing, however, spaces can be designed to ‘force’ interaction. For example, traditionally breakout areas were put in side rooms and ‘out of the way’ areas but can now be used to promote interaction by redesigning a work-space to make employees enter the office through a breakout area.
  • Office Furniture: single operator workstations don’t encourage, or facilitate, collaborative interactions and so in this model large desks/tables and soft seating areas are used around which groups of staff can interact and work.
  • Co-Working Space: primarily seen as a low-budget approach for start-ups and small businesses, the principle here is that a number of businesses all share/work in the same space and share resources which cuts overheads and enables interaction and collaborative thinking with other organisations. However, this model is now becoming more prevalent with high-end businesses. For example, Servcorp Limited “offers co-working lounges that allow clients to work, enjoy secure and fast Wi-Fi, free coffee and tea, and meet with clients as and when they please,” for high-end users who have “graduated from the co-working space that offers soft couches, ping-pong tables, jukeboxes, and that faddish ‘do it yourself’ approach.” states Warren Pohl, Marketing Manager for Servcorp Limited.


Ethos v Environment

As a final thought it’s also worth considering that revolutionising the workplace physical environment isn’t the only side of the process here. As Phillip Rubel, Managing Director of Designit’s Japan office points out, “[y]ou can’t just change the surface; you have to change the core, and that goes all the way to the company purpose”.

The ACCJ Journal for the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan succinctly phrases this issue “consider how your existing workplace plays into your company’s mission, and how a new approach might boost productivity and results. And when those changes are clear—and have taken form—embrace the change and lead your team into a more rewarding and inspirational environment.”

In Japan, this movement of ideological and physical restructuring of business practices and environments is taking shape and moving to the mainstream. Indeed, globally, it is a growing movement and, whether wholeheartedly embraced or not, has elements of benefit for, and provokes consideration of, all businesses and organisations when it comes to their workplaces and their workforce.