HR August 2016

You gotta have WAA

Cutting out the commute boosts morale … and business

  • Unilever staff can work from anywhere, anytime on weekdays
  • System aims to improve productivity, work-life balance
  • Some 140 firms have shown interest in the scheme

Yuka Shimada of Unilever

Yuka Shimada of Unilever

Unilever Japan introduced a new human resources system, on 1 July, which allows staff to choose both when and where they work. Through the system, the firm says it aims to “improve productivity as well as facilitate a better work–life balance”.

Work from Anywhere and Anytime (WAA) allows staff to choose to work any hours between 6am and 9pm on weekdays to ply their trade, as long as they have received prior approval from a manager, and are not expected to do anything beyond the tasks set for them.

“We are creating a culture based on performance and results”, Unilever said.

Yuka Shimada, the firm’s director of HR and general affairs, said that beyond improvements in efficiency, the goal of the programme is to help Japan become a little more open and relaxed.

“This is a new way of working because it will create a new future for this company—and for Japanese society”, she said.

Sparking interest
Since the launch, Unilever has received a number of enquiries from firms that want to know how the system works and whether it can be used by other businesses. Around 140 external parties of interest have attended sessions on WAA hosted by Unilever, to find out about the system.

“I am amazed by the positive reaction from the market and am sure this is clear proof that everyone likes to be trusted and given flexibility”, Shimada said. “I believe other companies can learn that doing is easier than anticipating; trusting people brings more benefit than managing them”.

Japan relevance
Systems such as WAA should be welcomed by all in Japan. The salaried worker sleeping at his or her desk is no myth, and neither is doing overtime just to make sure he or she does not leave the office before the boss. This comes down, at least in part, to the nation’s strict HR systems.

Many offices have a punch-in system, whereby cards tell management who arrived and when, with punishments doled out for lateness. Long lines of workers waiting for proof of train delays are a regular feature of morning commutes, and do not boost morale.

A Randstad Workmonitor poll earlier this year found that only 43% of employees in Japan were either satisfied or very satisfied with their place of work, putting it rock bottom among the 34 nations surveyed.

Productivity statistics are as gloomy. In the service sector, which accounts for about three-quarters of the Japanese economy, productivity has declined since 2010, according to official statistics. It stood at 96.4 in May, in figures using average productivity in 2010 as a baseline of 100.

Changing mindsets
“Comments from employees have been all positive so far, though there are practical requests and issues that can be improved, such as technology”, Shimada said. Since the system began, around 70% of employees have used it. Around 55% of those have said that it has been a generally positive experience.

Technological issues aside, there is also the challenge of getting people to feel that going to the gym at midday or finishing up for the day at 3pm without having left the house will not be frowned upon.

“There may be some people who feel guilty about not being in the office but this is really a matter of mindset as well as the leadership of our managers”, Shimada said. “Our vision of implementing WAA is very clear and we will keep conveying a consistent message. Also, the board needs to lead by example and provide opportunities to change the mindset of managers by conducting training”.

Improvements may lead one day to a much stronger system for Unilever, which can help the firm boost productivity and raise job satisfaction. But Shimada has a bigger idea.

“My hidden agenda is to eliminate rush hour commutes in Japan as they are killing people’s energy and motivation every morning”, she said.