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Business trends

Wooden workplaces work wonders for Japanese productivity

Experts see increased brain activity and faster typing in comfy interiors

Employees of Yamato International chat in a woody meeting space at the company's Tokyo headquarters.

TOKYO -- Yukiyo Hayashi, a 25-year-old employee at Japanese apparel maker Yamato International, has noticed a change at the office: Instead of frequent shouting matches, she now hears more laughter.

The change may have something to do with the workplace reforms that the Tokyo headquarters undertook last year. The company replaced its cold metal desks and chairs with warm wood ones, and added walls and meeting tables made of natural wood. 

The office is now filled with the scent of Japanese cedar.

"It's nice to feel wood at the office," Hayashi said. "My colleagues looked more stressed before. Now, everyone is more relaxed and cheerful." 

Beyond its aesthetic appeal, wood creates a sense of calm and seems to encourage communication. A study by Japan's Forestry Agency proved that productivity for tasks such as typing can increase when performed in wood rooms.

That is what caught the attention of company President Tomoki Hannya. "I wanted to keep our company competitive over the next 10 years. I felt that improving discourse among staff was crucial," he said, alluding to wood's ability to smooth communication.

A project team to lead workplace reform was set up five years ago, comprised mostly of young employees. "We spend most of our time here during the week, and we wanted to make a comfortable, homey workplace," said Takuya Nakayama, a key member of the team.

Office-equipment supplier Uchida Yoko helped with Yamato's renovations. "Wood is believed to have tangible benefits, from stimulating brain activity to controlling humidity," said Hidenori Kadomoto, a general manager in Uchida's product-planning section. "Also, people are attracted to cozy spaces."

Japan is rediscovering its fondness for domestic wood, incorporating more of it into workplaces, train stations and retail stores.

In the past, Japanese companies would mostly use items made from wood byproducts as part of corporate social responsibility activities to appear eco-friendly. "Those days are gone," said Michikazu Kobayashi from construction company Takenaka.

Businesses are now paying more attention to improving their work environments and are willing to pay for expensive, good-quality wood furnishings to improve efficiency.

Other factors behind the increasing popularity of wood are new materials and technologies that make it stronger and improve fire-resistance. And unlike Western countries, where wood structures are often painted, Japan prefers a natural finish with the grain exposed.

In November 2016, a three-story commercial building with pillars and beams made of cedar opened in a popular shopping and residential district of Tokyo. Tenants include a cafe and shops selling clothes and interior goods. Visitors are mainly in their 30s and 40s with small children.

"Customers are typically repeaters and stay longer at that store than our other locations," said a representative of Stripe International's Koe apparel brand, which has a shop in the building. The person said that shop staff spend more time with customers, and that the average amount spent by each is highest among all Koe branches.

Wood is also finding its way into public spaces. Akita Station, located in the northern Japanese prefecture of Akita, was renovated last year as part of efforts to boost the local economy. The train station uses generous amounts of high-quality cedar, which is abundant in the region. Ceilings, floors and walls are made of cedar, and wood rocking chairs and benches fill the waiting lounge.

According to the Akita branch of East Japan Railway, visitors are staying longer at the station since it was renovated.

Akita Station's waiting lounge has ceilings, floors and walls made of cedar.

Items made of wood are typically less durable than those made of synthetic materials. And although they become soiled and damaged over time, and require more maintenance, the trade-off in better communication and efficiency is worth it, according to a manger at Sumitomo Forestry, a Tokyo-based construction company.

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