“I think we should shift to shinrai [trust], because I believe people know when and how they can [best] be engaged.”

The WAA factor

Unilever Japan’s new flexitime system is something to get excited about

Text by Gavin Blair  /  Photos by Kageaki Smith

The lofty goal of Unilever Japan’s new WAA (Work from Anywhere and Anytime) super-flexitime system is nothing less than to change the way Japan works, according to the company’s human resources director Yuka Shimada.

The consumer goods giant has already taken some large steps in that direction in the few months since WAA — which is also a play on a Japanese expression that means “excited” — was launched on 1 July.

Unilever Japan implemented a flexitime system in 2005, and permitted working from home for up to eight days a month in 2011. It has now taken employee freedom to another level.

“The big difference is changing the core time. It used to be 10:30am to 4pm, when employees needed to be in the office. But now, between 6am and 9pm you can do anything: you can work, you can play, you can rest; you don’t have to be in the office,” says Shimada. “Now you can work in a café, at a library, on the street, or wherever.”

The most frequent use of employees’ new-found freedom is visits to doctors, while others are able to attend to the needs of their children or even play sport.

“Some of them said they were able to play tennis for two hours on a weekday, when the courts were empty, and then were able to go back to work after working up a sweat,” says Shimada. “And they are much more productive.”

Following the press release about WAA that went out in June, a number of Japanese newspapers ran articles covering it, leading to a deluge of interest, including on social media, which took Unilever Japan by surprise. With Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s statements about Womenomics attracting attention, the timing of WAA turned out to be extremely fortuitous, according to Shimada.

More than 150 companies and 300 individuals have been in contact with Unilever Japan since WAA started, asking about the new scheme. The company has conducted four explanatory sessions about the system to outside parties and created the Team WAA online community, to facilitate discussion on the topic.

The fact that the corporate culture of Unilever is one based on trust is crucial, according to Shimada, who has a background in psychology and organisational behaviour.

“It’s a key word for Japan going forward,” she states. “Japan’s system is essentially based on shinpai [worry], and that is why there are so many rules. But I think we should shift to shinrai [trust], because I believe people know when and how they can [best] be engaged.

“Typically, in old-style Japanese companies, people are used to just following orders; and being in that environment for many years, people can become like robots,” observes Shimada, who believes greater autonomy benefits both the employees and the company.

uni3Shimada acknowledges that many of the benefits of the new system are intangible and therefore difficult to quantify, though she is attempting to do so through ongoing employee surveys. A questionnaire after the third month — to which half of the company’s 300 staff responded — found 64% reported positive changes in day-to-day working, while 88% said they had used WAA at least once.

According to feedback from employees, 28% say that the time they spend working has shortened, and 66% believe their productivity has gone up, compared to the days before the WAA system was introduced. Overall productivity has increased by 27%.

However, only 25% of managers who responded to the survey said they were using the system, a percentage Shimada hopes will increase both for their own sakes and those of their subordinates, who often find it awkward to take long breaks in the middle of the working day when their superior isn’t doing so. Shimada says she is planning to dig deeper into employees’ reactions to the new system through subsequent surveys.

There was some anxiety amongst the staff before it was implemented that WAA was a “don’t come to the office initiative,” which is not the case — though reducing the long hours that Japanese workers are famous for is a goal, says Shimada.

The company is trying to limit employees’ overtime to 45 hours per month, which it is already on the way to achieving. According to Shimada, previously, a few staff members were working more than 80 hours of overtime, and 70 to 90 employees — between a quarter and a third of those on staff — were doing more than 45 hours. That has been reduced to around 40 people working more than 45 hours and nobody doing more than 80. However, Shimada noticed a few people reporting that they were doing exactly 45 hours of overtime, so she has asked staff not to underreport their working time.

Unilever Japan currently pays a premium of 35% for overtime work, more than the 25% required by Japanese labour laws. Although WAA is not designed to be a cost-saving scheme, if it does lead to a reduction in overtime payments, the company has promised that any savings will be returned to employees through bonuses.

In order to provide alternative venues to the home and office where employees can work remotely, Unilever Japan has come to an arrangement with New Work, shared offices run by Tokyu Railways, allowing staff to access five of its locations in Tokyo and Kanagawa prefectures. This began in September, and the company received around 200 requests from staff to use these facilities in the first few weeks.

One of the pillars of Unilever Japan’s people-centred HR regime is offering support for new mothers and fathers, such as reduced responsibilities with no loss of remuneration. Looking to the future — in light of Japan’s rapidly ageing population — Shimada says a key issue will be extending similar support to those engaged in caring for elderly relatives.