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Efficiency needed for true work style reforms

Cosmetics company employee Maki Kawaguchi, left, who has achieved workplace efficiency through taking inventory of her tasks, talks with her colleague on April 7, 2017, in Chuo Ward, Tokyo. (Mainichi)

The government unveiled its plan at the end of March to limit overtime to 720 hours per year as part of its "Realization of Work Style Reform" policy. However, instead of simply changing how long employees work, change in how they do their jobs is needed for true work style reforms.

With a shorter day, there is a need to learn how to work more efficiently. Maki Kawaguchi, manager of the product development department of cosmetics development and sales company Rank Up, is one such case of mastering the art of working efficiently in a short time through a company policy of "taking inventory" of her work.

Kawaguchi has a short workday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. She arrives at the company after 8:30 a.m. during the morning meeting, and then checks her email and confirms the companywide daily schedule and the contents of the morning meeting. The rest of her day is filled with meetings, and she uses the last hour before the end of her workday to once again check her email and create her schedule and other materials. On the train home, she gathers information that might be useful about competitors and shares the information with her coworkers online.

"Before I felt like I worked until finishing each day's tasks, but now managing my schedule is an absolute must," says Kawaguchi. The impetus for the change came from a policy introduced by the company in 2015: "assignment inventory." Under the new policy, employees finely catalogue their work for the day, visualizing their workday through the frequency, duration, and importance of each individual task.

"For example, there were times when we would take too much time collecting information on the web or brainstorming, and we didn't have enough time for product planning, which is the most important task," Kawaguchi explains. "Because the assignment inventory limits the time for each task, in order to increase productivity, I have to continually ask myself, 'What should be the top priority right now?'"

But cases like Kawaguchi's are an exception. In a nationwide internet survey conducted by Google in February 2017 targeting people aged in their 20s to 50s, 81.4 percent of the 3,093 respondents agreed that "work style reforms have not progressed as far as society says they have." In addition, roughly 70 percent responded that even though they wanted to change their work style they "didn't know how," "felt anxious about actually trying" or "had no motivation," respectively. "Work style reforms" have become a hot topic, but very few are actually realizing them.

Professor Hiroki Sato of Chuo University Graduate School of Strategic Management advises, "Decide yourself which days you will not work overtime. Try adding your projected finishing time into your work schedule."

Toko Shirakawa, a private member of the government's Council for the Realization of Work Style Reform, also adds, "Even if it's only the things immediately around you, make sure everything is in the most efficient location. Share your work folders and schedule with your coworkers." It is also possible to use readily available information technology tools to make tasks more efficient, she says.

Seminars for individual workers are also growing in popularity. Business consulting firm Accenture began its "Work Smarter!" seminars in fall of 2015. It offers half-day seminars teaching realistic methods for accomplishing tasks in a limited amount of time. The methods are not based on simply making the work day shorter or entrusting more work to other people, but rather rethinking how to make initial plans that reduce the overall workload by mapping out the shortest path to accomplishing a goal.

"Rather than making a to do list, the point is to manage your schedule by setting a deadline in advance and then filling in the work that needs to be done in that time frame," explains Accenture Senior Manager Ranko Ueno, who is in charge of the seminars. When the entire working process is mapped onto a set time span, it is possible to properly allot time for each task. If it looks like there are too many things to be accomplished, then it is important to assign priority and make a choice about what to do and what not to do.

However, in workplaces where long hours are expected, even if a worker can achieve efficiency in their work style and finish early, they may fear being judged by their colleagues for going home before them.

"At work, there are probably a lot of people who are thinking 'Who does she think she is?' But I also have a lot of people who say they are jealous or would like to work more like me," says a 37-year-old employee of a major publishing company. About worries of damaging her image and evaluation in the eyes of her superiors and other coworkers, she is hopeful.

"Society is moving toward work style reforms, and unexpectedly, I haven't gotten any direct complaints. Thinking long term, this is the right decision, so I think it's important to have the strength to be defiant and brush it off if someone makes a bitter remark," she says.

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