The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Japanese workplace culture tends to separate Millennials from their older employers and colleagues. To bridge this gap, the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan hosted an event on October 30 at Tokyo American Club that brought together a panel comprising Millennials and HR professionals to discuss today’s workforce issues.

Moderator Thomas Shockley, president and CEO of DocuMonde Inc., opened the discussion by saying that nomunication—the practice of drinking as a way of bonding with colleagues—is a dying thing in Japan.

Claudette Byers, chief HR officer at MetLife Insurance K.K., agreed, citing the move to other multi-generational activities such as hanami, bowling, and other sports.

Millennials agreed that good company culture now comes first, and that work–life balance is very important. “We need a little bit of everything: work–life balance, good career path, and high salaries,” said Chiaya Hasegawa, who works in the IT consulting and technology division of Tokyo-based recruiter en world Japan Co., Ltd.

When asked to compare each other’s generations, the HR professionals were quick to praise the Millennials.

“The speed of design and thought is so much stronger,” said Zane Zumbahlen, vice president of HR at IBM Japan. “It moves faster. It’s more cohesive, collaborative, and synergistic. It’s better. The quality of thought is a little more innovative and strategic.”

Byers added: “What I like about the younger generation is the flexibility that they have. If one says, ‘Let’s try something different,’ they are not scared to do so. Older generations are more set in their ways.”

It seems that both generations have equally high expectations. The Millennials recognize essential areas in which companies must excel to attract and retain younger employees.

“Excitement. Millennials like excitement. We are pretty impatient. We want constant changes,” said Hoyumi Yashiro, a consultant at EY Advisory & Consulting Co., Ltd. “Opportunities motivate us. We like challenges.”

“Flexibility. Especially as a woman, I want a more flexible style of working,” agreed Hasegawa, who more generally wants companies to focus on “making the working environment more enjoyable.”

Shigenori Funabiki, a sales planner at BMW Group Japan, said that he expects the company to have the right evaluation system. “Sometimes you have to stay in one position, although you can do a lot more. You have to stay in your position just because you are young.”

“You really should give us your opinion. You shouldn’t be held back,” said Byers, who admitted that it is easy to be held back in Japan.

Both HR professionals acknowledged the need for Millennials to break the generational barriers in Japan, where younger employees feel unable to share opinions and new ideas.

How does one do this? According to Yashiro, a casual and friendly environment is key.

Many worry that their ideas may not be good or may not work, but Zumbahlen said this shouldn’t stop you. “Failure is good. From failure, you learn so much; so don’t be afraid to make the mistakes.”

Byers cited another important point: “I think there’s a trust element to it. If the individual knows that you’re going to back them, then it’s a safer environment to speak up.”

Mentorship was a key theme throughout the panel’s discussion. As a closing question, Zumbahlen asked how they could help Millennials become leaders of the future.

“Mentorship. We need more connections,” replied Yashiro. “Younger people value connections within the company. If you feel more connected you’re more motivated.”

Hasegawa agreed: “I have a really good mentor. He is a work mentor and a personal life mentor. He’s not too close, but not too far.”

Taking personal responsibility to develop skills beyond what is taught in school is important, according to Funabiki. “I don’t think any universities in Japan teach any skills for work,” he said.

This is where mentorship can play a critical role, supplementing the work experience being gained and helping Millennials put that experience to good use.

The discussion highlighted how, through dialogue, Millennials and older management can come together to create a better work environment for everyone, and one that leads to better business results.

Francesca Madden is a writer at Custom Media, publisher of The ACCJ Journal.