Text by Gavin Blair
Although salary may still be the first thing job seekers look at when scanning potential positions, perks and benefits are being increasingly recognised as crucial ways for companies to attract and retain staff, as well as keep employees happy and productive. While generous expat packages for even mid-level employees at foreign firms in Tokyo may be a distant bubble-era memory, both local and overseas companies are finding creative ways to compensate workers.
With bankers’ and traders’ bonuses making headlines, particularly in Europe — and for the wrong reasons — since the financial crisis, there has been a shift towards reducing them and, instead, raising basic salaries at firms in the sector. In addition, capital requirements implemented in recent years for European banks have resulted in a scaling down of operations in Tokyo, belt-tightening across the board, and something of a standardisation in remuneration levels.
“As bonuses have become less variable and salaries have evened out, benefits have become more important than ever; I’ve lost deals over them,” says a recruiter who works in the sector in Tokyo and asked not to be identified.
The old expat deals of first-class flights and companies paying half a million or a million yen a month in rent are “almost non-existent,” according to the recruiter, who says these days, financial institutions are sometimes only partially paying for international school fees, and even getting stricter about what they’ll reimburse in the way of transport to and from work.
In this new landscape, what were previously standard perks in the finance sector — such as paid time-off for volunteer work and free in-house premium cafés — “are all getting cut,” adds the recruiter.
The Tokyo office of Anglo-Dutch consumer goods conglomerate Unilever still hosts a café corner, which, not surprisingly, serves Lipton Tea, one of the company’s flagship brands. Meanwhile, a shop at the office allows staff to buy the company’s wide range of products at a discount.
When Unilever launches new products or expands its offerings, samples are always given to staff, which boosts word-of-mouth promotion, explains spokesperson Seikei Itoh.
“The R&D teams also hold demonstrations in the offices to explain the background of new products and their technological superiority over competitors’,” adds Itoh.
Unilever has been continuously engaging in activities to support the residents of Tohoku since the March 2011 disasters, including supporting volunteer work in which around half of all employees have participated, according to Itoh. Pride in what their work has achieved, along with appreciation from local people, has helped boost morale, he says.
In February, to celebrate International Women’s Day, the company’s board members brought in a red rose for each of the more than 200 female members on staff in the Tokyo office.
Flexitime, an important benefit for working parents, is available at Unilever, as well as at the Japan operations of Mercedes-Benz.
“Our flexitime system does not have core work hours, and employees can start working from the afternoon when their tasks of the day can be managed with shorter work hours,” says a Mercedes-Benz Japan spokesperson. “Employees can adjust their work hours depending on the fluctuations in work volume for the month and season.”
Being able to work from home is also a huge help for those with children, or other relatives who need looking after. About 10% of employees at Mercedes-Benz Japan telework a couple of days a month.
With business increasingly globalising, particularly at multinational companies, language-training support is being provided at a growing number of firms. Mercedes-Benz offers courses in English, German and Japanese at various levels, with a curriculum that includes presentation skills in English, a basic finance course in English, and finance and marketing in Japanese.
Rakuten made headlines in 2012 with its move towards making English its in-house language, but also offers Japanese courses for foreign staff. Other measures to accommodate its increasingly international workforce include halal food in its cafeteria and a prayer room for Muslim employees.
Another Japanese corporation with distinctly global ambitions is SoftBank. One of the policies it implemented to raise the English level of its staff proved to be a perk for some of its foreign employees. The company offered a ¥1 million bonus to any employee who scores more than 900, out of the maximum 990 points, on the TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) and ¥300,000 for a score of more than 800. The programme ran for three years until December of last year. Restricting the bonus system to Japanese employees could be construed as discriminatory, so some of SoftBank’s native English-speaking staff were able to cash in, presumably without too many hours toiling over textbooks.
Social messaging app company Line has been making major forays into the global market while helping to raise the language skills of its employees.
“There is funding for studies for employees to increase their language skills, including classes in English, Korean and Japanese. If we attend at least half the classes, the company pays for the course, otherwise we have to pay; it’s good motivation because everyone is busy,” says spokesperson Icho Saito, who is taking a course in Korean.
Classes for most courses, except the higher-level classes, are conducted on the premises, as are yoga and Pilates.
“There are also activities like mountain climbing, for which circles can be started by any employee. It’s a good way to meet people from other departments,” says Saito.