What are the 3 Biggest HR Challenges That Japanese Companies Wanting to Build Better Workplaces Today Need to Address?

Andrew Manterfield and Yoshiharu Matsui

Andrew Says...

No two companies are the same so the challenges each one faces are unique to their particular situation. In general, however, there are three areas that are important to focus on because it will provide a framework for managing the challenges that may occur, as organisations take on the task of building better places to work.  

The following are the essential areas for consideration:

1. Goal Setting
If you want to improve something, the first step you need to take is to establish a clear goal. What sort of company do you want to be? What do you wish people would say about your company? What do you want to be known for?

Having a clear goal and being able to answer those questions are non-negotiables – but they are also often missed. The usual scenario goes something like this: employees are asked to complete a survey about the organisation, the issues are identified based on the survey results (often the good things are ignored), and a plan is created. The company refurbishes the office, they give people free tea and coffee, they benchmark salaries, and so on. But nothing really changes. People act and behave the same way. And so the results remain the same by the time the next employee survey comes along.

What’s happening is that the company is reacting to the data rather than taking a step back to reflect on the responses first. As a result, they fail to see the opportunity and the need for real change. Real change brings about different behaviours and different ways of working – factors that help build a better workplace and create a real business benefit. Changing the furniture, rearranging the office layout or behaving and working as usual won’t lead to a notable difference.

The leadership in the organisation should head the task of goal creation, making sure to factor in the input of employees, customers and other key stakeholders. Create a vivid description of what the future could look like. Write it down, including the details on what will change, in a way that’s inspiring and worth looking forward to. This description can be used as a guide for planning as well as a tool for engagement. Without it, you do not have a target to aim at. 

2. Commitment and Ownership
A vital element in making meaningful changes is leading with a vision rather than merely following the bandwagon. For example, I often get the question: “What is global?” usually from Japanese companies I work with that want to be “more global.” I always answer with a question: “What sort of global company do you want to be?” 

Leaders in companies recognised as great places to work in look to other companies for inspiration and ideas. They look for best practice and examples. Then they decide what they want to create. When making the change comes from your own idea and decision, you’re more committed to the goal. You can can also speak authentically about the goal. The workplace becomes a reflection of your beliefs and values.  

The second part of commitment and ownership would be to do things well and set your standards high. Often when the discussion gets financial, people start to change the goal. This often happens if a bigger change is required. People make excuses. “It will take too long.” “What else could we do that is quicker?” or “What is the ROI?” All these comments and questions destroy the goal, the vision, the enthusiasm and the passion to create a special place to work. A more helpful set of questions would be: “So how will we make it happen?”, “Where can we find the money?” or “What other ways we can try to achieve our goal?” How you initiate and manage the conversations that will spring from these questions will reflect the kind of workplace you offer. You are creating the culture through your actions.

3. Empowering Employees and Other Key Stakeholders
Ask yourself the question, “Who can decide if we are a good place to work?” It will not be HR or the leadership team. It will be your people and the people you work with. They will decide based on their experience of being in your company and working together with you. These are the people who can guide you. 

Employees and your external stakeholders can help you create the goal and (probably more important) help you to create the solutions. For example, your values survey reveals inclusivity as an area that needs attention. To address this, it may be helpful to ask your employees what changes they would like to see to make the company more inclusive. Their answers will provide a perspective you may not have access to from where you are. 

It is surprising how many companies do not engage in such conversations. In many cases, everything is turned into a project, a plan and a PowerPoint presentation that do nothing to engage or inspire people. Some companies turn to hiring an external consultancy or to creating a project group of high-performing workers. The project group meets and works in secret. They talk only to a selected few employees. They report to the leaders, and the leaders decide. The senior leader announces a major change and tells people what will happen (to them). 

Such an approach can be more expensive. It also sends a signal that only leaders can make all the decisions, without consulting workers. It seems to say that some people are more capable, important and special than others. When choosing an approach, think about the unspoken messages that might be conveyed, its effect on the company culture and the impact for everyone.

Make the effort to talk to your people to personally share your vision (with energy and enthusiasm). Involving people empowers them. It equips them with clarity and direction as you work side-by-side in making the changes needed to achieve your mutual goal of improving the workplace.


Andrew Manterfield
Executive Coach and Senior Consultant, SudaManterfield

Andrew has an innate belief in people and their desire and ability to achieve more. His purpose is to find the greatness in every person he meets and to ensure that greatness lives and breathes every day and is fulfilled. He has worked in the global FMCG industry for over 27 years for Diageo Plc, the world’s biggest adult drinks company. Andrew has over a decade of director-level experience in both human resources and sales. He has lived and worked in Japan, Australia, and the U.K., and he has worked with organizations across Asia, Latin America and Africa.

Yoshi says...

Translated from the Japanese original

Thanks for asking a timely question, because the theme of the SHRM 2019 Annual Conference & Exposition is “Creating Better Workplaces,” which featured several concurrent sessions around how to increase employee engagement and strengthen organization culture.

The key problems that many Japanese companies face are two-fold: low employee engagement and poor productivity, especially among office workers. The engagement level of Japanese workers is only 6 percent in 2015, which is one of the lowest scores in the world. Meanwhile, the average work-hours of regular, full-time employees in Japan is over 2,000 hours per year, one of the highest among developed countries. (Nevertheless, it’s a lot lower than in the 1980s, which was beyond 2,500 hours.)

Some of the key factors associated with low engagement and productivity around the world are digital transformation involving AI, robotics and IoT, accelerated globalization, continuing M&A and organization changes, and an increasingly diversified labor market. But these are not direct drivers of poor engagement in Japan.

In Japan, the top three factors that lead to poor engagement and productivity are poor competencies of managers, ineffective HR systems/policies, and inefficient work systems. HR managers need to tackle these challenges to create better workplaces that are engaging and safe.

Challenge #1: Poor Competencies of Managers
Global survey indicates that the top three reasons for turnover are 1) “job is not motivating/interesting,” 2) “my boss doesn’t support me” and 3) “I don’t feel a sense of growth.” Who can best influence those three factors? The boss, of course. Given that, the most immediate and impactful action HR managers can take to decrease unnecessary turnover and increase employee engagement is to develop their managers’ leadership and management capabilities. 

As you may already know, Fortune 500 companies that have been growing for the long run have a robust leadership development system. How many managers in your company actually assign or delegate work or tasks that will inspire and develop direct reports? Who among them finds consistent ways to engage, motivate and support workers, and constantly help them grow? If all your managers can perform those roles effectively, how high do you think your employee engagement score and productivity can go up?

Challenge #2: Ineffective HR System (that doesn’t motivate nor help improve productivity)
In offices where working long hours is the norm, you most likely will find not only a boss who forces overtime work but also a culture of working long hours. Most notably, it’s a culture of working long hours that has been built and reinforced by HR systems. An example of it can be an evaluation system and policy that allows managers to give high evaluation ratings to members who work long hours and then promote them faster than those who work less hours. 

This system is bad for both people and business. If we evaluate people based on the length of work hours, those who work efficiently and complete the task within official work hours will be demotivated. Putting a premium simply on time spent working will not allow us to generate and build effective work behaviors that help us achieve mission-critical business goals. Effective HR systems can help employees understand and become motivated about taking the right, effective behaviors at work. Of course, recruitment and development systems can also help create effective work culture in the organization.

Challenge #3. Inefficient Work Systems
If poor work-life balance is a problem of your organization, HR needs to tackle this to optimize work hours and/or actually reduce work hours. In order to optimize work hours, it is important that we first help managers research and analyze current work situations, identify inefficient or ineffective work, and eliminate or modify those work and tasks. I have successfully implemented this approach in my prior career, and helped line managers analyze and eliminate inefficiencies, resulting in reduced work hours and improved work-life balance. After all, a balanced life is the foundation of a healthy life. A lack of work-life balance can generate stress and negatively affect the immune system and life itself. Optimized work hours/workload is a must for any company. Today, it’s easier to do so using IT and AI.

In summary, as HR professionals, we need to first analyze the current status of managers’ effectiveness, HR system effectiveness and work system effectiveness, and then help the organization prioritize and address the challenges one by one to create better workplaces.


重要なご質問、ありがとうございます。「より良い職場を創る」は、今年、米国で開かれた「人材マネジメント協会(SHRM、Society for Human Resource Management)」のテーマで、エンゲージメントや企業文化を高める様々セッションが開かれました。




課題1. マネージャーの能力不足:社員の離職の3大理由は、「①働き甲斐のない仕事」、「②褒めも支援もしない上司、「③成長実感のないこと」。これらに一番影響を与えるのは誰でしょうか?もちろん、上司です。ですので、無駄な離職を無くし、社員のエンゲージメントを高めるための人事部で行うべき一番効果的な方法は、マネージャーのリーダーシップとマネジメント能力を高めることです。長期的に成長し続けている企業では、すばらしいリーダー育成の仕組みを持っています。働き甲斐を感じさせる仕事の委任やアサインをできる上司、部下育成に関心を持ち、適切な支援ができる上司、部下を常に成長させている上司、皆さんの会社に現在どれくらいいるでしょうか?マネージャーが全員これらの活動が的確にできるようになればどれくらい社員のエンゲージメントが高まり、且つ、生産性が高まるのでしょうか?

課題 2.やる気も生産性も高めない人事制度:残業の多い職場には、残業を強いる上司だけでなく、残業をよしとする文化を持っていることが多くあります。当然、この原因のひとつに評価制度や昇進制度などいろいろな人事制度が絡んでいます。例えば、遅くまで仕事をするほうが、上司から認められ、良い評価をもらえる、残業時間の長い人が早く昇進するという事象がある会社です。これは、社員にもビジネスにもよくない制度です。働く長さで仕事を評価するのでは、効率よく良質な仕事をする人、業務時間内に目標を達成する人の意欲を落とします。目標の達成度合いと質で評価しなくては、会社の業績につながる行動を奨励できませんので、その会社のビジネスも生産性も頭打ちになっていきます。効果的な評価制度とは、社員に正しい行動をとらせ、且つ、やりがいをキープするものです。当然、企業文化を強化する採用や育成のしくみもあります。

課題 3.非効率的な仕事を回すしくみ:健全なワークライフバランスができていないことが会社の課題であれば、労働時間の最適化や長時間労働を減らすことは人事部にとって重要な役目となります。労働時間の最適化を図るには、現状の実態を把握し、効果の少ない、非効率的な、または、不要な業務を特定し、削減、または、改善策を図るように支援することが重要です。私も前職で、この手法を全社で活用してもらい、労働時間の削減とワークライフバランスの向上を成功させました。また、バランスのよい生活は健康のための条件です。ワークライフバランスの欠如はストレスを高め、免疫力も下げ、寿命も縮めやすくなりますから、労働時間の最適化は会社にとって重要な取り組みです。これには、ITとAIを有効活用したいものです。


Yoshiharu Matsui, Ed.D., MBA
President, HPO Creation, Inc.

Yoshi specializes in leadership and organization development leveraging his more than 12 years of marketing experience and 12 years of HR/OD experience. He provides executive coaching, leadership development, organizational change and marketing and sales development to help clients strengthen their business performance, organizational health and employee engagement. He earned his BA in intercultural communication from Kita-Kyushu University, an MBA from Northwest Missouri.

松井義治(ヨシ)Ed.D., MBA  
HPOクリエーション 代表取締役社長



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