The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

The effect of Covid-19 on the global economy has forced organizations across industries to evolve—rapidly in the moment, but with a more measured eye on the long term. Japan is known for its long office hours and unwavering dedication of workers. Yet when the pandemic took hold, that tradition was shaken and most companies were forced to allow work from home.

Now that the state of emergency has been lifted and the country has begun its journey back to normality—or at least a new normal—social distancing measures must remain in place to ensure the safety of workers and help prevent a second wave of infections. But how will that be done in offices designed for the free interaction of large groups of people?

On June 4, the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ) Real Estate Committee hosted a webinar entitled Covid-19: Opportunities and Impact on the Japanese Workplace: Beyond Two-Meter Spacing. Sarah Bader, principal and repre­sentative in Japan at Gensler International, Ltd., Ryann Thomas, partner at PwC Tax Japan, and Daichi Amano, creative director for Asia–Pacific at global design and architecture firm Gensler, discussed the strategies companies can use to balance working from home and returning to the office.

Discussion began with statistics showing how work from home has been received during the crisis. Throughout the presentation, results of Gensler surveys were shared. Seventy percent of US workers polled said they want to work in the office most of the week, while 30 percent want a flexible arrangement. Just 12 percent indicated they would like to work from home full time.

Although a majority wish to return to the office, critical changes must be made for that to happen. Social distancing and cleaning protocols, in particular, were cited as crucial.

The top reasons people prefer the office are:

  • Scheduled meetings
  • Socializing
  • Impromptu face-to-face interaction
  • Sense of community
  • Access to technology
  • Focus on work
  • Meetings with clients
  • Professional development and coaching
  • Access to amenities

Source: Gensler

In Tokyo, 100 Gensler employees surveyed between May 18 and 22 were asked if they would prefer to go back to the office or continue working from home. Before the coronavirus, 90 percent did not work from home on a regular basis. Now, 87 percent want to continue to work from home at least a few days each week.

And at PwC, the most common point made was that the office space must be adaptable, because the future of office working is changing faster than we imagine.

When people do return to the workplace, technology will play a key part in allowing business to go on safely. Purification systems can be used to improve indoor air quality, leading to higher productivity, fewer lost workdays, and lower healthcare costs. Infrared screening systems can be used to check for fever and confirm that those entering the premises do not show signs of infection. And hands-free tools can be part of solution-based design strategies that minimize the need to touch door handles, elevator buttons, and building directories.

The recommendation that people stay two meters apart must also be incorporated into office design to promote safety while Covid-19 remains a risk, so de-densifying workstations will be important. Where existing desk spacing is less than two meters—a common situation in Tokyo—every other desk or seat can be used to create a buffer. It will also be important to position employees so that they aren’t directly across from one another.

While face-to-face interaction is cited as a top reason for wanting to return to the office, gatherings remain a concern. Steps such as reducing the number of chairs in a conference room can encourage smaller meetings and allow for proper distancing. Of course, encouraging people to collaborate virtually as much as possible is the best way to reduce the risk of spreading the disease while still maintaining relationships among businesses, clients, and colleagues.

As part of the discussion, Thomas shared PwC’s experience planning for their new office, and how they are looking beyond physical distancing to provide both a virtual and physical community.

She explained their new digital program, which was origi­nally designed—pre-Covid-19—to assist the flow of office work by giving employees more flexibility when reserving meeting rooms, and to allow clients to check in electro­nically with whomever they are meeting. The program will include a floor map and navigation system.

“If you want to find someone, or if you want to speak face-to-face or have a meeting, you want to be able to identify whether the person is sitting in the office. If they aren’t, then you know they are at home and can plan for how that remote meeting might take place,” she explained.

For the “new normal” workplace, the technology can also collect data on how and where staff are working, and which spaces are being used.

“With this technology, we will be able to guide and manage the staff through a platform, providing information about where there are free seats, what kind of seating is available, or where there are too many people,” Thomas said. “This technology will be implemented across all our offices, including the existing Otemachi Park Building.”

PwC’s new digital program

“It’s about building a corporate culture despite the fact that people are not in the same place. It’s about being able to share ideas and infinite information collaboratively, when you’re not [physically] working together. It’s about being able to understand where people are and what the space looks like,” Thomas said.

Presenting already designed plans, PwC aims to create flex­ibility when it comes to the redesign so that the company can easily adapt to significant change in operations, much as it has during the coronavirus pandemic.

“One of the aims of the new design is that—should we find the future of office working changing in ways we can’t imagine—we are able to redesign the office far more flex­ibly than we can in a traditional office, where a lot of design structures are fixed and mutable, and are costly—or impossible—to change.”

Megan Casson is a staff
writer at Custom Media for
The ACCJ Journal.
Office space must be adaptable, because the future of office working is changing faster than we imagine.