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Business

Work reforms at Japan's materials giants set to flow downstream

JFE Steel staff to pick no-overtime days, Mitsubishi Chem to halve meetings

Companies are making it easier for employees to leave work earlier.

TOKYO -- JFE Steel and Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings will take steps to improve the work-life balance of employees next month, and the vast industry links held by these materials suppliers could prompt other Japanese companies down the supply chain to follow suit.

The JFE Holdings unit will let employees select at least one day per week to leave work on time at 5:30 p.m. Each worker will set such no-overtime days by discussion with supervisors, and can reschedule in the case of such emergencies as a disruption at a steel mill. The initiative starts in April and covers about 60% of the staff, or around 9,500 workers.

Manufacturers, which are tied to many business relationships, rarely allow individual workers the freedom to set no-overtime days.

Japan's new Premium Friday initiative encourages employees to leave work at 3 p.m. on the last Friday of the month, as the government focuses on improving the work-life balance for the nation's workforce. Companies also have had no-overtime days imposed by management. But these blanket measures may do little to achieve a better work-life balance because they fail to address the varying workloads among individual employees. After-work activities also differ from person to person.

JFE Steel's program seeks to offer greater flexibility by catering to individual situations among workers rather than impose a uniform measure.

Mitsubishi Chemical will halve its internal meetings both in length and frequency when the company integrates three units in April. No meeting is to be scheduled for early morning or the evening, except for necessary communication with overseas posts. The company hopes this becomes an established practice by September. In principle, work email during weekends will be banned as well.

Materials suppliers like these two are crucial to industry, positioned at the most upstream point of the supply chain. When such companies institute a more individual-based work reform, they must extend consideration to minimize the impact to the supply chain all the way through to the finished consumer products. Yet considering that work reform is unavoidable in the push to raise staff morale, companies face the challenge of breaking free of established norms and crafting a new business model.

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