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Who turns a company into a ‘wonderful place to be’?

by Amy Chavez

Kazuhiro Tsuga, president of Panasonic Corp., addressed his new recruits on Monday telling them that he hopes they will turn the company into “a wonderful place to be.” President Akio Toyoda encouraged his recruits at Toyota Motor Corp. to exhibit “the strength seen in cherry blossoms that can persevere in a harsh winter.”

In the meantime, over in the United States, IT companies are taking their wonderful workplaces and making them into more wonderful places with the aim of cultivating a passion for work. Makes me wonder: Whose responsibility is it to provide “a wonderful place to be” — the company’s or the employees’?

The wellness fad that swept the U.S. in the 1980s is being repackaged in the form of sheik, fun, healthy workplaces by companies like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo. Companies are wooing the best talent by offering workplaces with fitness rooms, massage rooms and recreational spaces.

They’re remodeling offices and thinking outside the box. Why have a normal, black desk chair when you can have a lime green one, for example? Why ride a mama-chari with squealing brakes when your company, Google, will loan you a shiny new banana-colored bicycle to ride? Companies are adding all kinds of gimmicks to make the office a wonderful place to be with on-site gyms, electric cars, free taxi services, etc. In addition, employees occasionally get tickets to sporting games, concerts and movies.

Blowing through Seattle the other day (I was there a total of two hours), I scheduled a business lunch with my friend, Diane Olsen, who works at Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington. “What would you like to eat?” Diane asked me, “Thai, Mexican, Mongolian?” These were among the options at the food court on the Microsoft “campus,” a sprawling acreage of over 100 buildings.

“We can go to a restaurant in town if you want, but there’s really no need,” she added. We settled on Mongolian (vegetarian, no less) in the food court, a collection of restaurants flanked by mobile phone shops, a credit union and even a bicycle shop (that also sells snowboards, in case you decide you want one for dessert, I guess).

“Yeah, I’m spoiled,” says Diane, as we stepped into a free, private taxi that has been called for us by the receptionist at the food court. The cab would take us 1.6 km back to Diane’s office building. Shuttle busses do go by, but we’d have to wait a few minutes. Besides, they don’t stop exactly in front of Diane’s building. Thus the taxi service. The idea seems to be that if you make a workplace pleasant, your employees will be happier and more willing to spend time at work. Proof? Diane has been there for 16 years. She loves her job. Even more so, her company.

After lunch, I enjoyed hanami while walking across the campus on groomed footpaths that meandered through mini-forests dotted among the buildings. I could imagine the Japanese marveling at the Microsoft campus: “Iiiiii desu ne?! (How nice!) But we could never do that in Japan. Japan is too small! There’s not enough space.”

But it isn’t about physical space so much as mental space. The psychological effect of these workplaces is that they inspire people to be creative and to work with passion and ingenuity. They are enjoyable places to work, wonderful places to be.

Real estate prices aren’t just about physical space either. Just living near the ocean in the U.S. will jack up the value of an otherwise normally-priced house. It doesn’t matter whether the residents who live there actually go to the beach or not. Just being near the ocean creates a mental image of fresh air, open space, recreation, and well, fun!

When I was in the sixth grade, we’d play soccer every day at lunch time recess. That’s when I realized I could never work in an office, because offices don’t have recess. But at Facebook, employees have access to a studio where they can do woodworking or silk screening. So maybe I could work there. At Google they can play pool, and Apple has ping-pong tables. So maybe I could work there too.

So why doesn’t Japan do this? They do, but in a very different way. Japan has historically offered their employees transportation stipends, shuttle busses to and from work from train stations, housing supplements and even increases in salary each time a child is born. I can’t think of one company in Japan that doesn’t pay its full-time employees all transportation costs to get to and from work as well as most of the other benefits listed above.

Employees also get bonuses once, twice, or three times a year, depending on the company. Even though these bonuses are figured into their yearly salary, resulting in less pay per month, few Japanese people are eager to give up the bonus system. It allows them to buy big ticket items all at once — with cash. And without paying interest on a loan or credit card. As a result, loyalty to the company is already implicit. And most people these days are just happy to have a job.

So while employees of Japanese companies seem to have just as many benefits as employees of American IT companies, the difference is that Japanese benefits don’t impact their work environment. But they do impact their home life and their families.

Sometimes I walk into Japanese companies and it seems like the employees have taken on the personalities of the dull office furniture around them. I can’t help think that these offices could do with a bit more pizazz. Or more pizzas.

I wonder if Panasonic and Toyota have thought about little ways they can help make their employees be happy and wonderful. Maybe they can’t afford to build gymnasiums with swimming pools, workout rooms and yoga classes, but they can give employees a membership to the local gym. Not only would the employees benefit, but the local gym would too, creating a win-gym situation.

I’ve noticed that kids have much more fun on a school bus than adults do on a shuttle bus to work — even though the busses are fulfilling the same role. Could it be because the school busses are painted bright yellow? Or is that adults have forgotten what it’s like to have fun?

Maybe Japanese companies should consider ways to help create a wonderful place to be, so that employees will want to persevere like cherry blossoms in a harsh winter. Couldn’t we all use a few more ping-pong tables in our lives?

Ask not what you can do for your company, but what your company can do for you.

Follow Amy Chavez on Twitter @JapanLite.