Japan’s “work style reforms” backlash grows

The number of articles I have seen in the Japanese media full of complaints about the “work style reforms” announced by the Abe government last year seems to have shot up, particularly since the introduction of “premium Friday” in February of this year, when everyone was supposed to leave work at 3pm on the last Friday of each month and go shopping.

The Nikkei Business magazine’s 24th July 2017 edition has highlighted 3 kinds of behaviour attracting criticism in an article entitled “That’s not work style reform!”

Dumping work on overseas subsidiaries…

Mr A, a 30 something manager in a famous Japanese electronics company, is well known for producing great reports and yet somehow always managing to leave work on time, claiming he needs to pick up his kids from school, or do the housework.  He goes on business trips to Asia twice a month, as his area of responsibility is global sales, and is meant to meet customers to understand their requirements for automotive and electrical components. However according to the young staff (presumably either Japanese or Japanese speaking) in the Asian offices, he mostly gets them to write the reports.

This behaviour started when the work style reforms began to be implemented, such as receiving warnings the next morning if your PC was still on after 8pm.  Mr A said he couldn’t take his laptop home because his young children make it hard to work, so asked the Asia office staff to draft reports for him.  “If you try to refuse he starts talking about his kids.  how he has to take them to hospital or it’s their birthday party”.  I wonder though, unless he’s wrongly claiming credit, isn’t this just good delegation?

…and other complaints

Other behaviours which complaints have been received about include – refusing to read customer emails after 4:45, just moving the mouse around to show that you are working from home, lights going out in the middle of important meetings, “last orders” being 2 hours before the end of business.

Nikkei Business lists up the initiatives which have been taken:

  • Ajinomoto: changed the official end of the working day to 4:30 from April 2017 and shortened the working day from 7 hours and 15 minutes by 20 minutes
  • Honda: Introduced a “working interval system” whereby there must be a minimum of 12 hours break between two work periods
  • Fujitsu: Authorised unlimited working from home (but only twice a week maximum after the end of the working day) for around 25000 of its employees
  • Calbee: Has a bi-annual “get rid of unnecessary work” drive
  • Sony: promotes a “flex holiday” system of 16 day consecutive holidays including Saturdays.
  • Astellas: Introduced a “Family Friday” system where work finishes each Friday at 4:30


What Japanese companies should do instead

Nikkei magazine asked the Chinese founder of Japanese software company Softbrain Song Wenzhou what he thinks Japanese companies should do instead.  “It’s pointless to expect Japanese people to become more efficient by themselves.  Even if you start an initiative to get everyone to observe 9-5 working hours they will still stay in the office even if they don’t have anything important to do.  Being more efficient is seen as leading to sloppiness and if you just do the essentials of your job this is seen as bad!”

He recommends:

  1. The whole organisation – not just the individual – has to focus on how to improve productivity.  I totally agree – leaving it up to the individual will not work in a collectivist, collaborative workplace.
  2. Then you can reduce working hours

Mitsuo Sekiya, the founder of Disco Corporation, a Japanese manufacturer of precision machinery, led a true reform of work style, resulting in three consecutive quarters of highest ever profit this year.  Sekiya’s view is that true work style reform requires a radical restructuring of the company and that the problem is that employees who increase their productivity are not rewarded either financially or in terms of evaluations.

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