Flextime proving to be surprisingly inconvenient for big Japanese firms

Canon Inc. is negotiating with its labor union to scrap a flextime system adopted in the research and development department, a company spokesman said Tuesday.

The move reflects the severe business environment but goes against the government’s policy of promoting flexible working hours.

Other leading companies, including Fujitsu Ltd. and Sharp Corp., have also ended their flextime systems.

Leading Japanese companies started adopting flextime during the bubble economy of the late 1980s, with the aim of boosting creativity.

In 1991, Canon introduced flextime for workers in research and development. In July, however, it told the labor union that it wanted to abolish the system.

“We are hoping to end the system in January to enhance efficiency,” a company spokesman said. “Research and development requires working in groups, but with the current system, the hours that people can get together are limited, and it is difficult to hold meetings,” he said.

Under Canon’s flextime system, employees must get together during the “core” hours — from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. — but are free to set their own hours from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. and from 2:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Fujitsu, which introduced flextime for all employees in 1989, abolished the system in January.

“We felt we needed to strengthen relations with clients and speed up the relaying of information among workers,” said a Fujitsu spokeswoman.

Fujitsu’s core hours used to be from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., but now working hours are from 8:40 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., she said.

Sharp introduced flextime in its technical department in 1988 but abolished it in March.

“The economy was booming when we introduced the system, but now the competition is stiff and we need to boost efficiency. Times have changed,” a Sharp spokesman said.

The government is banking on flextime to give people the opportunity to enjoy more diverse lifestyles and allow men to have a greater hand in child-rearing.

In a white paper released in March, the government called on companies to adopt flextime to develop communities supportive of child-rearing. The report was released after an education ministry panel said in July that flexible working hours were a must for fathers to participate in child-rearing.

Flextime was first adopted by Japanese companies in 1970 but became more popular after standards were set up under the labor law in April 1988.

According to the Labor ministry, bigger companies are more likely to have flextime.

Ministry data for 2001 show that 35.9 percent of companies with at least 1,000 employees had adopted flextime, compared with only 2.8 percent of companies with a workforce of between 30 and 99.