The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

“More people than ever are beginning to realize just how much we are affected by our work environment,” says Tokyo-based creative director Daniel Harris Rosen.

Yet, most companies—especially in Japan—are only beginning to take a hard look at their workplaces and how to change them for the better.

“A lot of office spaces here are conducive to robot-like efficiency, but not to creativity and doing good work.”
Rosen is the founder of TokyoDex, a creative agency that produces solutions—including musical, artistic, and interactive digital experiences and works—for spaces and events.

For him, a well-designed workplace interior will enhance well-being, inspire creativity, and boost productivity. And there’s an added benefit: an increased bottom line.

How an office space is designed and used has become an important brand differentiator and tool for attracting—and retaining—quality staff.

Rosen is not the only one thinking along these lines. Speaking to The ACCJ Journal, business leaders, entrepreneurs, and creatives say the way people work is changing—as are the environments they choose.

For Sachin N. Shah, the occasion of relocating to a new space was the opportunity to fulfill a core philosophy of MetLife Japan.

There are two motivations for the new office design, said Shah, who is the company’s chairman, president, and CEO.

“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.”

Another goal, he explained, is to create an environment that drives collaboration and allows employees to work in the way they want.

The new MetLife Japan office in Akasaka has many design features that are revolutionizing the company’s work culture.

Common areas, for example, are free-to-use spaces where employees can eat or hold meetings. Focus rooms are private spaces designed for private work that emphasizes productivity.

The IT support center, meanwhile, resembles the Genius Bar made famous by tech giant Apple Inc.’s retail stores. Next to the center stands a games room, where workers can refresh while playing table tennis or video games. There is even a MetLife-branded café—named Café 26—in the office.

Taking his cues from the way society is arranged—with community centers, cafés, open spaces, and so on—Shah believes that “rather than inhibit natural human interaction, the workplace should accelerate it.”

MetLife Japan’s new office space in Akasaka allows for intuitive interactions.

MetLife Japan may be ahead of the curve when it comes to creating office spaces fit for the modern workforce. However, as research shows, that cannot be said for many companies around the world—including in Japan.

“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,” according to polls conducted by global market research company Ipsos Group S.A. and office design solutions company Steelcase Inc.

According to the 2016 report Steelcase Global Report Addendum: Japan, only five percent say their offices are stimulating or innovative.

Twenty countries and 14,903 respondents took part in the poll, which has five key findings linking the workplace to employee engagement.

When it comes to employees having “control over workspace basics,” the report found that Japan (70 percent) lags the global average (81 percent) in all areas, including those who said they “have access to natural lighting.”

About perception of company culture, the survey also asked: “Would you say that your company . . . encourages teamwork and collaboration?” Japan again lagged the global average for positive responses, 56 percent to 68 percent.

“Given these realities,” the report concluded, “it’s perhaps unsurprising that Japanese workers believe that their company undervalues them.

“In return, despite the long hours they put in, only 39 percent report that their company gains their best efforts.”

Indeed, as Rosen notes, “If you spend all day staring into a white wall, as is often the case in a traditional office, then that probably won’t do much for your psyche—or productivity.”

“We found that the age of maximizing operational excellence, efficiencies, and going global to create growth has been reached,” said Brandon Peters, sales director at Steelcase Japan, which works with organizations to create performance-enhancing office spaces.

“So, there is a shift from being operationally excellent, to being creatively inspired, being a risk-taker, and becoming a problem-solving organization that is creative,” he added.
As the world becomes more interconnected, the challenges we face have become more global and complex—as have their solutions, Peters asserts.

To help unlock the world’s untapped creative juices, Steelcase designs “spaces based on destination.” This means connecting to the work that we are doing at that particular time within a space.

TokyoDex “Vision Wall” at Straylight, painted by Mariya Suzuki

The company has partnered with Microsoft Corporation to explore vertical workspaces that are digitally enabled and support collaboration. To this end, Steelcase’s offerings include Microsoft’s Surface Hub interactive whiteboard.

“It has everything you need built into it. If you want a whiteboard, you have that. But if you want to do something a little more complicated—perhaps to manage a work session—you can do that as well,” Peters explained.

With the Surface Hub, a user can write using a digital pen, access the Internet, and save and share content digitally in real time with colleagues around the world.

“What is interesting is that the tool alone does not unlock creativity. It is the physical space working in harmony with the digital space that will unlock it.”

According to Steelcase, creativity has become the new productivity, especially among Millennials, a group born between the early 1980s and early 2000s that are often seen as digital natives.

The company offers “focus studios” for individual work and short-term collaboration, “ideation hubs” for open- or closed-space collaborative sessions, and “maker commons,” for brainstorming and unplanned discussion that can lead to unexpected solutions.

Warren Pohl agrees with Rosen, Shah, and Peters. The workplace is changing, he says, and the writing has been on the wall for some time.

“Our shared workspace offering has created ‘smart offices’ for nearly 40 years now—but it’s just becoming very fashionable in the last few. We offer shared workspace where clients meet, mingle, and interact.”

Pohl is the public relations and marketing manager at Servcorp Limited, a multinational that offers serviced and virtual office and IT solutions.

Steelcase Japan offers a space for concentrating on individual work.

“Servcorp 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,” he explained.

The company’s typical users are clients who have “graduated from the co-working space that offers soft couches, ping-pong tables, jukeboxes, and that faddish ‘do it yourself’ approach.”

At their high-end locations, users seek to impress clients while enjoying full administrative and technical support, he added.

This year, the company sought to enhance its support for users with the launch of an online business community where more than 40,000 clients can communicate, collaborate, buy, and sell. As users travel around the globe, they can hit the ground running with a solid base of physical infrastructure and online support.

By tapping into the local business scene, such networking offerings allow users to hit the ground running when online or in a new location.

Servcorp’s networking events have tied into one of the key motivators for modern office design: talent branding through workplace experiences.

When Steelcase opened its new space in Tokyo this year, for example, the company threw a party for clients and the local creative community. In addition to food and wine, the event included live art by TokyoDex.

“We want our clients and the community to see our new space, to have fun in it, because there really is a fun element to our work environments. It is a celebration,” Peters said smiling.

Via such “synergy parties” and other workplace experiences, companies not only enhance their connections with clients and the extended community; they can also bolster their brand image, thereby increasing the chance of retaining talented current staff while attracting new ones.

Rosen noted: “While there has been a growing clamor for greater innovation and innovators, many workplaces still do not lead the way themselves by being innovative.”

Shah agrees.

“The question is, how do we get our workforce to feel like they are operating in the modern world,” Shah said, “because when they are feeling that way, they will parlay that to the customer so that they feel like they are dealing with a modern company.”

MetLife Japan‘s game room is a space where employees can relax and refresh.

Based in Amsterdam, and with offices in Berlin, London, New York, and Shanghai, MassiveMusic is an international music agency that opened in Tokyo this year.

Tapping into a global network of creatives, the company produces music for brands in the film and television industry, as well as for technology and gaming companies.

“When it came to choosing and designing the office in Tokyo, we didn’t want a traditional office style; we wanted something that resembled a living room,” explained Junya Terui, the company’s managing director and executive producer.

“Yes, we wanted a place where our clients could feel that they were part of the family,” added Rick Sakurai, MassiveMusic’s creative director and composer.

Why place such an emphasis on office design? MassiveMusic’s ecosystem, Sakurai explained, is close-knit and based on trust.
One way the company builds that sense of trust is to hold events at the space.

“Current clients and new guests, especially from the local creative scene, find our events a useful way to connect with us and to each other—and they love this space,” Terui said.

It is not surprising that guests are often impressed with what they see. In addition to a sound and digital mixing studio, the space offers sofas, board games, a small bar, and a large outdoor balcony on the roof. There is even a widescreen television for movie nights.

And the reaction from visitors?

“Wow! I want to work here!” is a common response, said Sakurai. One guest said, “I like this place so much, I may just come by to hang out next time.” And he did.

Servcorp’s Tri-Seven Roppongi floor plan encourages communication through good design.

For Designit, a strategic design company that creates a range of products, which include consumer goods, medical devices, business-to-business and business-to-consumer applications, as well as designs business processes, it is not just the physical experience of workplaces that is being overhauled. The digital space is being upgraded, too.

One such upgrade is the “seamless digital experience for customers of a national airline” that Designit created.

“We designed the experience so that a customer can make choices, indicate preferences, and utilize services before, during, and after flights in a more seamless way.

“Or, you can order your food in advance of arriving at the airport, or pre-choose from a range of mobile devices to use while you wait to fly,” explained Phillip Rubel, the managing director of Designit’s Japan office.

By creating a digital experience that requires just a few pushes on a smart device, Designit was able to ensure their client fully accommodated the end-to-end travel experience preferences of customers, Rubel added.

But while acknowledging the important role played by a more connected work–customer experience—or work environment—Designit’s emphasis lies in what they call a “human space” or a “happy space.”

“Just infusing something with technology doesn’t necessarily solve the problem. Sometimes, it can actually create more problems and a lot of frustration for the user. To create a space for what you need requires the right balance of technological and non-technological approaches.”

All contributors to this story noted that, while it is easy to import ideas and even the hardware into a new office environment, it is much more difficult to translate the prevailing culture into a new environment.

“You can’t just change the surface; you have to change the core, and that goes all the way to the company purpose,” Rubel noted.

Peters agrees, adding: “When company leaders are thinking of investing in a new space or a space that brings about new behaviors, they need to lead that change and be the change agents. If they don’t go and sit in that new café or play the video games, no one else will.”

So, 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.

John Amari is a writer and editor from the UK who specializes in articles on startups, entrepreneurs, science, tech, and business.
There is a shift from being operationally excellent, to being creatively inspired.