The first thing Hiroaki Ninoyu does almost every day when he arrives at work is head to the meditation room.

He begins his half-hour ritual at 7:30 a.m. in a Japanese-style room equipped with soothing sounds and lighting effects.

Thanks to meditation, “I can focus on one thing without being easily distracted,” said Ninoyu, the general manager at the Tokyo headquarters of office solutions company Itoki Corp.

Though work-style reforms are spreading through corporate Japan, not all are about cutting overtime and encouraging employees to use their paid leave. Attention is also being devoted to improving the workplace environment. A poorly designed office can cause stress and hurt productivity.

One solution is a concept known as “activity-based working,” which allows people to work in spaces that best suit their tasks.

Itoki’s headquarters in the Nihonbashi district is an ABW office that opened in December. The working spaces at Itoki Tokyo Xork, as the office is called, are actually “settings” designed to facilitate various tasks.

For example, the “high-focus” setting allows employees to concentrate in private booths or partitioned workstations, and the “inform” setting lets them share ideas on screens while sitting on terraced wood benches.

In all, the new office has settings tailored to 10 specific purposes as defined by Dutch consultancy Veldhoen Company Pty Ltd., Itoki said.

There are 93 private rooms spread over three 800-sq.-meter floors adorned with partitions of different shapes and colors, as well as modern furniture.

This worker-oriented idea — a more progressive version of so-called free-address environments — emerged in the Netherlands in the 1990s and is gradually catching on in Japan.

Higher productivity

Itoki was one of the first Japanese companies to jump on the ABW bandwagon.

“I can concentrate well on each task because I can choose a workspace depending on the type of activity I’m performing,” said Daisuke Igawa of the sales planning department.

The company regards “better productivity and engagement” and “recruitment of a broad range of talents” as the main challenges it hopes to address with the ABW concept.

Although Itoki does not have data on the concept’s impact on productivity, Kosuke Hoshi, a manager, said the office definitely changed the mindset of his staff.

“We learn to think daily whether the way we work is conducive to better productivity,” an attitude he called “a big change,” Hoshi said.

Itoki also developed systems in which employees notify each other of their schedules and whereabouts in real time. The schedule management system has given rise to a culture whereby employees try to avoid interrupting colleagues when, for instance, they are engaged in “high-focus” assignments.

“We care about whether we are hindering our co-workers’ productivity, which is linked to our productivity as an organization,” Hoshi said.

Igawa’s colleague Karen Yamakoshi feels she has become more efficient. “When I schedule my work day, I can arrange tasks aligned with my energy rhythm, like doing creative work after lunch when I feel uplifted,” she said.

A growing trend

Itoki may appear to be ahead of the curve — especially because it’s in the office-solutions business. But the movement isn’t limited to select industries. As companies worldwide strive to remain competitive in a fast-changing environment, they have begun shifting priorities to the needs of their workers, rather than just the company’s own interests when planning offices.

One such company is Japanese employment support system provider IgniteEye.

The company plans to open an ABW office in July in Tokyo’s Hanzomon area as part of its work reform agenda. President Takashi Yoshida said today’s traditional office layout — assigned desks and meeting rooms — “does not match the way we conduct our work.”

Yoshida pointed to the importance of having space that accommodates the increasingly diversified activities in his office, such as videoconferencing with customers.

“I expect the new office space to support employees’ creative ways of living and working,” he said.

According to a survey by Xymax Real Estate Institute, which monitors the property market, about 60 percent of 206 companies nationwide introduced new layouts upon moving into new offices between 2016 and 2017, with the goal of improving working styles. The top three priorities were: “an open meeting space,” at 39.3 percent; “space for employees to refresh,” at 24.3 percent; and “ABW,” at 15.5 percent.

The businesses surveyed said they wanted more comfortable office space. Other reasons included improving staff satisfaction and motivation.

The Japan unit of commercial real estate services group CBRE has embraced ABW and sees growing interest among other companies. Chinatsu Kaneko, a senior director at CBRE K.K., said ABW consultations with Japanese companies, including many large ones, have more than doubled over the past two years.

Changing the workplace environment is the “most effective way” to advance work-style reform, Kaneko said.

“The change visualizes the company’s commitment to reform because employees can see that their office becomes open and makes the organizational structure flat,” she said.

In 2014, CBRE opened its Japan headquarters in Tokyo’s Marunouchi business district. Based on the ABW concept, the office has various types of desks, enclosed rooms for making telephone calls, a rest space and a cafe that serves alcohol at night.

Other amenities include lactation, massage and shower rooms, the latter of which is popular with employees who jog around the Imperial Palace during their breaks.

Although the goal of the relocation was to raise the company’s domestic profile and increase collaboration between departments, the new layout has brought other benefits, mainly to employees, Kaneko said. Because the ABW office gives employees greater discretion and autonomy over where and how they work, “it allows them to work independently, resulting in better productivity and reduced stress levels,” she said.

An employee survey in 2017 found 84 percent reported improved productivity, compared with 76 percent in 2014, when the new office had just opened.

“For me, the stress level has dropped considerably,” said Koichi Suzuki, the company’s senior research director. “You don’t have to feel you can’t go home earlier than usual because your boss is watching you,” a common complaint in fixed-desk office setups, Kaneko said with a laugh.

The caveats of ABW

All of this may seem like a worker’s paradise, but ABW offices are not for everybody. Before embracing ABW, managers need to take into account several factors.

Part of it is cultural. Kaneko said workers in Asia tend to place importance on following the rules and simply performing the tasks delegated to them, so employees may feel awkward with their newfound freedom. “It is important to teach them what it means to work freely and how they can work freely,” she said.

In addition, ABW offices are more compatible with types of work that don’t involve being tied to your desk, such as sales and information technology, Kaneko said.

Digitization and data security, however, may pose another challenge, as the concept promotes paperless operations.

Kaneko also said because ABW offices make personnel management more difficult, managers need to pay attention to how they communicate with staff, such as by conducting more frequent one-on-one meetings to touch base with colleagues.

As Japan grapples with a shrinking working-age population, Kaneko said, appealing working environments and corporate cultures will play an increasingly vital role in attracting young talent.

While acknowledging that ABW is not a silver bullet, she said, “these offices symbolize a corporate culture that is free and puts trust in individual workers.”

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