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Business trends

Fun offices now include sushi bars, jungle guides

Tokyo workplaces roll out offbeat ideas to engage employees, visitors

Samantha Thavasa Japan opened in its new office a sushi corner to treat employees

TOKYO -- When Samantha Thavasa Japan moved its headquarters into a new building in central Tokyo a few months ago, the apparel maker's founder and president decided to have a sushi counter in the office. The space is known as "Shacho-zushi" -- president's sushi.

On special occasions such as employees' birthdays, the company invites a chef from a nearby high-end sushi restaurant who makes fresh sushi for employees for free. It looks like a normal sushi shop, equipped with a draft-beer tap and special refrigerator to keep the raw fish cool.

"It's a nice way to entertain guests from abroad, too," said company President Kazumasa Terada.

Samantha Thavasa is one of a number of companies in Japan trying to make their offices fun and pleasant. Such efforts are not just eccentric statements of corporate culture, they are aimed at motivating employees and helping efficiency.

On a recent summer day, managers of Samantha Thavasa's jewelry shops who had come to head office for a meeting were invited over the sushi corner.

"I never imagined I would have such a luxurious time at the office," one manager said. "It's a reward for our days of hard work," said another, impressed.

DMM.com, a Japanese e-commerce and internet company, uses two-dimensional animal projections -- from lions to elephants and wolves -- to guide visitors to meeting rooms. Some 26 animals beginning with different letters -- anteater for A, bear for B, etc. -- are assigned to the rooms. Images of the creatures projected on corridor walls walk guests to meetings.

It's not all just for fun. It is an effective way to demonstrate the company's ability to come up with fresh ideas. Visitors often take photos and video of the projections and post them to social media.

As is often the case with tech companies, DMM has a striking office layout. A long, winding desk about a kilometer in length stretches across the vast floor, accommodating some 600 people. Each employee is allocated a space on the desk, which is designed to make workers walk certain distances to places or colleagues.

"I have begun paying more attention to colleagues and chat with them sometimes while walking around the office," said Maki Tsunemi, a 24-year-old marketing employee.

In the office's common spaces, live plants greet workers and help them relax.

"My friends are envious that I can work in an office like this," said Saori Ugawa, who works for a unit that offers English lessons via the online call application Skype.

A better work environment could help the company's hiring efforts, too. "Some of our colleagues decided to join partly because of this office," a worker said.

Walking tablet

Anicom Insurance uses telepresence robots to connect telecommuters.

Pet insurance company Anicom Insurance makes life more comfortable for telecommuters. On a recent day, Miki Hyodo was working at her desk at headquarters when a tablet stand rolled up close to her and a voice whispered: "What are you doing now?" The insurer had introduced telepresence robots to facilitate employees working from home.

The voice was that of Miho Tanaka, who works from Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost prefecture. Through the tablet's camera, Tanaka can monitor the inside of head office in real time, remotely controlling the tablet stand as it moves through the office, and using it as a video phone.

"I can visit a colleague's desk and see whether he or she is free or engaged," Tanaka said. "Face-to-face communication is easier than over the phone, and I can have casual chats with colleagues on video, too."

Insurance is an invisible product, so the company tries to make things and the workplace as open and visible as possible. The office aims for maximum transparency -- in addition to the glass walls of meeting rooms, real-time photos from inside the branches are available on a website, open to anyone.

Construction of many large office buildings is slated for completion in central Tokyo in 2018 and beyond, with an increasing number of companies expected to relocate their headquarters to newer buildings. There could be more ideas for smart, fun offices just around the corner.

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