In the face of a labor shortage and a push to get more women into the workforce, some Japanese companies are taking steps to accommodate the needs of working parents, such as allowing them to bring their children to the office or to work from home.
There are two prongs to this: Flexibility is seen as creating a more family-friendly working environment, but some firms are also looking to mobilize former employees who left when they had a baby.
At the office of Sow Experience Inc., a Tokyo-based company that sells so-called experience gifts — such as vouchers for vacations or classes — a 30-something female worker turned away from her computer and hugged her 3-year-old son as he ran toward her.
The woman, who joined Sow Experience in October, recalled wanting to be involved in society but could not find a place at a day care facility for her son.
“Being able to bring my child to work was a must,” she said.
“My son has become more sociable as he gets to play with other members of staff here,” she added.
In 2013, the company began allowing its employees to bring their children to work. A carpeted area of about 40 sq. meters is set aside as a play area, and furniture corners are protected with safety bumpers to prevent injuries.
At a work table right next to the play area, staff pack products for shipping. The adults strike up conversations with the children as they work.
There are times when work gets interrupted, such as when a child starts crying. Still, the 34-year-old president of Sow Experience, Taku Nishimura, believes the benefits outweigh any challenges posed by the tears and tantrums.
“For example, the atmosphere in the office becomes more relaxed, and the spread of common understanding about the situation in raising children has facilitated the creation of a working environment that is friendly for all members of staff,” Nishimura said.
Of the company’s 36 employees, eight people — both male and female — regularly bring their children to work. Others do so occasionally, such as when it is difficult to arrange to collect their child from day care.
Since June, Sow Experience has been organizing monthly visits for outsiders. About 20 people have taken part, including human resource management officials at other companies.
Meanwhile, some companies have introduced telecommuting policies to enable employees to work from home. The time saved from commuting to the office can be used efficiently for work or taking care of children.
Sumitomo Forestry Co., for example, introduced the system in fiscal 2009 and about 20 of its 4,500 employees currently work from home. Most are female staff with children under school age, although there are also male workers who use it to care for sick or elderly family members.
Staff in positions under the so-called discretionary or flextime working-hours system are eligible for telecommuting.
Employees need to get approval from their section and from the human resources department. They can choose to telecommute for a few hours per day or for the entire workday.
The housing sector has been seen as one of the industries where it is difficult to introduce flexible labor arrangements as most work involves customer service and it is hard for employees to work at their own pace.
Sumitomo Forestry Co., however, has tried to tackle it.
“We have been able to continue with this system by not setting too detailed regulations, so as to be versatile enough to adapt to each employee’s circumstances,” said Naoko Ushiki of the company’s personnel department.
Ushiki, too, works from home once a week while taking care of her children. She said the time at home allows her to work efficiently, “as I can concentrate in a quiet space.”
In March 2015, Tokyo-based wedding hall operator Escrit launched the online job-matching service Maricrit for former employees who left when they had a baby or found that they needed more time to look after young children. This untapped labor resource could help secure experienced staff during peak seasons.
“Most people join the company aspiring to work on weddings,” an Escrit representative said. “By establishing a framework under which they can work again even after quitting due to having to raise children, it enables them to feel reassured and motivated to master their respective expertise in the field.”
The Maricrit service has since been expanded to allow former employees of other companies in the wedding industry to register, and it allows other companies to post job offers.